Air Race Classic 2000 — Sands to the Sea
In its 24th year, this premier women's air race — whose roots go back 70 years, to the first Women's Air Derby — attracts pilots from all over the country, from college teams to former WASPs. This June, the flyers enjoyed mostly fine weather and fair winds as they raced from the desert, across the mountains, to the Atlantic coast. AVweb's Mary Grady was there as the pilots crossed the finish line and filed this Special Report.
Flying At Full Throttle
Only one thing is certain when 102 women climb into 51 airplanes in Tucson, Ariz., on a June day — in blazing 110-degree heat — and race toward the cool sea breezes of Hyannis, Mass., more than 2,000 nautical miles to the east: Chances are, they will encounter the unexpected, the unforeseeable, the problematical; but without a doubt, they will have an unforgettable adventure.
Exuberance, tinged with a bit of exhaustion, overflowed at Griffin Aviation's FBO in Hyannis on Thursday. Competitors in this year's Air Race Classic, laden with luggage, arrived from their tie-down spots in a minivan driven by a tuxedoed chauffeur, and alighted on a red carpet to sign in with race officials. Gathered on the ramp with bottles of ice-cold water, sandwiches, champagne, news reporters and the local Ninety-Nines, the racers swapped stories, caught up with friends old and new, made sure their airplanes were looked after, and scrambled to find hotel rooms — the organizers had expected most of the flyers to arrive on Friday, but here they were, a day early. "The tailwinds this morning were too good to pass up," explained racer Royce Clifford, of San Diego.
Mary Rawlings, of Palm Springs, Calif., pulled from her pocket a tattered scrap of paper that listed her air time, to the minute, over the last three days. A quick tally showed 17 hours of flying in a rented Cessna 172 with her co-pilot, 82-year-old Ruby Sheldon, of Phoenix, Ariz. "It's a test," Rawlings said. "It's very tough. You've got to use your weather information, get the best out of your airplane and your navigator, and you've got to hold it all together. That's what wins the race."
Strategy Is The Key
The cross-country competition, now in its 24th year, rewards that kind of strategy. Teams can enter in any stock airplane that meets race parameters, and they're assigned a handicap by the race committee. They must follow to the letter the rules and regulations for every phase of the flight — VFR only, taking off and landing only within prescribed daylight hours, attending mandatory briefings, flying by or landing at each of the eight designated airports along the route. Penalties are plentiful and strictly enforced: "If your landing light's not on during your fly-by, that's a penalty," said Sue Gray, treasurer for the all-volunteer race committee. Only after all the airplanes are in and all the details scrutinized are the winners announced — and the No. 1 team takes home a $5,000 prize.
This year's fleet included an array of Bonanzas and Skyhawks, various Piper products, a Grumman Tiger, a Beech Sierra and a few Mooneys. Chris Bently, of Littleton, Colo., talked to the folks at Cirrus Design Corp. and got them to loan her an SR20 fresh from the factory. "I'm on the list to get a Cirrus by next July, so I called and asked if I could borrow one for the race," she said, and the company agreed. "It flies great! But we'll have a low score — we got a big handicap, because it's new and everyone said, it's so fast! It is fast, but it's not a rocket. Maybe for next time we can get the handicap lowered and do better."
Many of the pilots come back year after year, but every race brings new fledglings into the fold. Western Michigan University sponsored a team for the first time this year, sending flight instructor Jennifer Richard and senior Jo-Elle Warner to compete in a Mooney Ovation off the school's flight line. Dean Richard Wright arrived on the ramp in Hyannis to greet the two, and soon cellphones appeared for the young women to talk to the school's PR folks and their local media back home. "Jo-Elle had her picture on the front page of the paper," Wright beamed, amazed at the support for the team from the university and the community. "Everyone's so excited about it."
The Freedom Of Wings
Other first-timers this year included Gail Lively, of Santa Rosa, Calif., a wheelchair aviator who wrote that learning to fly "gave me a wonderful feeling of freedom, independence, and power." Sarah Dittman, 19, a sophomore at Purdue University, flew her first race with fellow student Erin Conner, 23, "the older and wiser one," back for her second go. They left Indiana on June 9, flew to Hyannis, flew the whole race route in reverse, then started out again from Tucson. After two solid weeks on the road with their Piper Warrior, they were still having a great time and ready for more. And the race organizers had more in store for them: a full weekend of activity, including a whale watch and a clambake, and an awards banquet to top it all off on Sunday night.
Ruby Sheldon, whose teammate Mary Rawlings described her as "one hundred pounds of energy," lived up to her billing, happily talking to reporters and clearly in no hurry to leave the airport for the comforts of a hotel room. Sheldon retired from the U.S. Geological Survey, where she flew a wide variety of airplanes and helicopters. Asked if she chose that career because airline jobs in those days were closed to women, she shook her head: "I had no desire to fly for an airline! Going from A to B, A to B, and back, that's not flying! I've flown all over the country, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. They've got the money, I suppose, but I've a got a lifetime full of memories enough; I don't worry about the money."
This year's winners were: first place, Denise Waters of New York and Ruth Maestre of Ohio, flying a Grumman Tiger; second place, Margaret Ringenberg and Lynn Van Etten, both of Indiana, flying a Cessna Skyhawk; and third place, Judy Bolkema-Tokar of Florida and Esther Lowry of Georgia, flying a Cessna Skylane. Next year's Air Race Classic departs from California on June 26 and finishes up at Sporty's Pilot Shop in Ohio.
For more information about the Air Race Classic, check the Ninety-Nines' Web site.
AVweb's coverage includes more images of race participants and their aircraft.