Airplanista Aviation Magazine Monthly Column: Joe Clark: Racing history and the wind

10:19 PM

This aviation magazine article was originally published in the July, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

By Joe Clark

In 1929, Amelia Earhart and 19 other women pilots competed in the First Women’s Air Derby when they raced from Santa Monica, CA to Cleveland, OH. It was the start of something big; at the end of the race, Earhart and the other racers banded together in camaraderie. The meeting of this assembly of women flyers eventually evolved into the famous group, The Ninety Nines.

Throughout the 1930s, the women pilots raced around the continent in an event covering different cities and areas of the nation. The races ceased during the war, but started again after the war as the All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, or the AWTAR. Most from around the United States and in the aviation industry knew of this race by its alternate name, The Powder Puff Derby.
Officials have since renamed the race as the Air Race Classic. Indeed, as with the races of yesteryear, the event is just as exciting and important in promoting general aviation today as it was in 1929. Two women from Embry-Riddle will compete in this year’s race.

The race covers a route of approximately 2,400 miles over a four-day period. The pilots are restricted to day VFR flying and they are also issued their handicap for the race. The pilots do not compete against one another, rather they fly to the best of their ability to attain the highest groundspeed possible over their handicap speed.

This results in the race being one of “flying the best possible cross country,” rather racing in the typical sense of the word. As such, the winner remains undeclared until the last crew has crossed the finish line and race officials evaluate the numbers. As officials and racers have noted, the winner could very well be the last airplane to land at the finish.

This year, Embry-Riddle will field two of the contestants, Rachel Petersen and Taylor McWilliams. Petersen is a flight instructor who graduated from the Aeronautical Science degree program and has been working as a CFI for two years. She originally hails from Vancouver, but moved to Tampa, FL with her mother when she was twelve. She is presently working on her master’s degree in airport operations. McWilliams, a senior at the university, is also in the Aero Sci program. Both are very excited about the race.

“We will be flying a Cessna 172 Nav III model,” Petersen said when asked about their craft. “The tail number will be November 392 Echo Romeo.” She went on to say that the airplane will be equipped with an autopilot and that 127.5 is their handicap speed this year. “We don’t usually do that, even at 2500 rpm, so we will have to use tailwinds to get above 127.5.”

McWilliams, originally from Cambridge, MD, is very excited about being in the race. She is looking forward to the experience of flying through the Midwestern states as they zigzag their way from Iowa, to South Dakota, to North Dakata, and back into to South Dakota. From there, the race travels to Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Louisana, Arkansas, and then to the final landing in Mobile, AL.

“I have never done anything like that,” she said, sitting in the offices on the flight line at the university. “I have done a cross country from Maryland to Fort Lauderdale, which was about nine hours in one day, but uh, nothing really out west.”

Both pilots underwent a rigorous selection process for the flight. The committee chose them based on their experience, their enthusiasm, and their compatibility. As Petersen put it, they try to choose pilots who will work together to build on each other’s personalities in order to excel in the race.

The flight instructor went on to say they would have their own website on which they would post a blog about their race experience. It would include their daily triumphs, as well as photos along the way. “The website is.” Petersen added the race organization also has a website for more information.

As the two young women talked about their upcoming race, they displayed the enthusiasm and eagerness, which was part of the reason the committee chose them for the race.

As with many of the students at Embry-Riddle, both racers knew they were going to be professional pilots at a young age. McWilliams when she was 13 as a result of getting the ride of a lifetime in an L-39 training jet; and Petersen at age 12 following a school assignment in aviation. Both indicated that ever since those life-changing events, they always knew they were agoing to be aviators.

By the time this goes live on the web, the race will be over. The scheduled race dates are June 21 – 24. Here’s wishing success to the ERAU racers and a safe journey for all.

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