‘The only race of its kind’: Women pilots take flight in historic competition

Published 4:39 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2023

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By Dan Gunderson

The Air Race Classic is an iconic cross country race, tracing its roots to the early days of aviation and showcasing the skills of women pilots.

“It’s the only race of its kind,” said Air Race Classic President Laura Gaerte. “It’s the longest cross country race both in terms of time and in terms of distance. And it’s the only one that’s for all women. It’s almost like it’s a bucket list item for ladies that fly.”

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The race is about winning prizes, but it’s also about networking among women pilots and expanding the roster of women in aviation.

The Classic started in 1977.

“Prior to that it was the all-women’s Transcontinental Air Race, which got nicknamed the Powder Puff Derby. So we’ve been doing this almost 100 years,” said Gaerte, who has seven top 10 finishes in this race over the years.

For the first time, the race starts in Grand Forks tracking more than 2,500 miles southeast to end in Homestead, Fla.

Veterans and students

Among the competitors there is a pilot in her 90s. There are seasoned commercial pilots and more than a dozen teams from universities across the country. A team from Minnesota State University Mankato is competing as is a team from the University of North Dakota.

Pilot Grace Heron from Tampa, Fla., leads the UND team. Heron will make the final call on in flight decisions, but the team will constantly communicate, especially about changing weather conditions.

“Like, the winds are better if we go up 1,000 feet, oh, the winds are a lot better if we drop down 2000 feet, there’s a lot of that,” said Heron. “We don’t want a headwind, a tail wind’s great, but just no headwind.”

UND Co-pilot Sadie Blace, from Mankato, Minn., will help monitor weather conditions with assistance from a team of meteorology students at the university.

“They’re experienced forecasters that are able to say, ‘you’re going to have a few cells pop up, you’re going to want to go this way, you’re going to want to wait a little bit’, because it’s all in the strategy,” she said.

Vital communication

The team has discussed what each member’s comfort level is for flying in different weather conditions, establishing a set of minimums to guide decisions during the race.

“What are we as a team comfortable with, so that we are able to discuss it on the ground before we have to make a split second decision in the air,” said Blace.

The racers have to be sure they follow all FAA rules, as well as the race requirements.

The flying is all done under Visual Flight Rules, which means no flying at night or in limited visibility conditions.

Each plane in the race has a handicap based on its top speed. The handicap is determined by a pre-race flight. During the race, flight time is calculated against the handicap to determine race standings. So theoretically, the last plane to cross the finish line could win the race.

UND navigator Tracy Mitchell from Billings, Mont., sits in the back seat. She handles communication with air traffic control and makes sure the flight stays on the right heading and altitude. She also provides additional eyes for the pilots in what might at times be congested air space.

“I’m able to see traffic a lot better than they are in the front. So I help out with that, just kind of little things that take the workload off the pilot and co-pilot so they can focus on the safety of the plane,” said Mitchell.

The team also has a ground coordinator, Ashley Almquist from Bay Village, Ohio. She handles social media and any communication or coordination the team needs help with during the race.

Each team member has regular assigned tasks, such as packing the luggage compartment each day or checking the engine oil.

There are also physical demands that come with being in the air for six hours a day in what are expected to be hot humid conditions.

“In a single-engine four-seater, fully packed, with no AC, in a competitive environment,” said Blace.

Maybe the team’s nickname: “The Frozen Force,” will help keep them cool.

But heat stress is more than just discomfort during the race, it’s a risk factor to be managed. Dehydration or exhaustion can lead to poor choices in the air.

The race stretches over four days, but most teams will finish well before that deadline. The time gives racers the option of waiting out a storm system since time on the ground doesn’t affect their standing.

Providing representation to young women

For the UND team, there’s more to the race than just making the best time to Florida.

Outreach with a goal of bringing more women into the aviation program at the university is a priority.

“Really showing other girls and other young women that they can do this too is something that is super, super awesome that we’re able to do,” said Blace.

Grace Heron wants to be a role model as a black woman pilot.

“It could be one kid that says hey, ‘I see a pilot and they look just like me, so that means that I can do it’,” she said.

Less than 10 percent of all pilots in the U.S. are women according to the Federal Aviation Administration data.

The Air Race Classic also highlights the history of women in aviation.

This year the focus is on Moorhead, Minn., native Florence Klingensmith, an aviation pioneer who co-founded the Ninety-Nines, an international organization that promotes the advancement of women in aviation.

During the Air Race Classic, young pilots will get to rub elbows with some of the top female pilots and create connections that might someday help advance their careers.

“It’s such a brain trust of lady pilots,” said Gaerte. “It’s an energizing group to be able to participate with them. We’re still basically writing history for women pilots.”

One team will be added to the history books as winner of the Air Race Classic Friday evening in Florida.