Air Race Classic: An excellent aerial adventure

By AMELIA T. REIHELD

As I climbed into the sky southwest-bound over North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound a few weeks ago, the reality hit: I was about to become part of a tradition begun in 1929 by pioneer aviatrixes, determined to prove their mettle to a skeptical men’s aviation world. And it was too late to chicken out.

This year’s cross-country Air Race Classic was to include 50 little airplanes and more than 100 women pilots from all over North America, including my new friend and air-race pilot, Linda Keller, of Mobile, Ala., and her Piper Cherokee 180, “Ms. Lima.”

On a Thursday morning, Linda and I headed north from our mutual hometown, over the green fields, hilly woodlands and winding rivers of Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, toward Iowa City, Iowa, where the racers gathered. Blessed with gentle tailwinds and clear skies, we hoped that fine weather foretold good things to come.

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Linda and "Ms Lima" prepare for takeoff

Over the next few days, Linda and I, or the Azalea City AvGals, as we would be known for the next week, Classic Racer #6, spiffy in our hot-pink matching shirts, attended briefings, airplane and paperwork inspections, and social gatherings with new friends. We enjoyed the sophisticated charm and excellent bistros along Iowa City’s pedestrian mall, just outside our downtown hotel.

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The racers gather in Iowa City

Alas, the forecasts in our first four planned stops in the Dakotas and Wyoming weren’t looking good. If we didn’t have decent VFR weather, race rules dictated that we wouldn’t be able to fly at all. Finally the race coordinators made a hard decision: Racers would duck south of the widespread rain, and make our way to Alliance, Neb. We would start the race a day later there at Stop Number Five.

It was a good call, but we were crestfallen to have our long-anticipated race through the Rockies cancelled. On the other hand, there was much adventure left.

DSC_1354 On our way to the new race starting line, we crossed tidy farms and mile-square cornfields, and then the flooded Missouri River where there’d been a disastrous levee breach. Roads disappeared into the miles-wide river, and many rooftops of houses and barns peeked through the muddy water. We decided to stop for the night halfway to Alliance. It looked as if we might have the little Hastings airport to ourselves, some calm before the hectic race. We’d no sooner helped ourselves to the courtesy car for the night, though, than three other race teams showed up. At dinner that night, we had well over 100 years of Air Race Classic experience. Some of our dinner companions had flown every year for more than a quarter of a century — and they weren’t sharing their secrets of success.

The race started at noon. The hospitable people of Alliance were ready for the onslaught of lady pilots, with a fine spread of picnic fare. This race would obviously not be a hardship run — I enjoyed more homemade cookies in a week than I’ve had in the last five years.

Hot sunny skies prevailed, and Classic Racer #6 lined up for takeoff, its pilots mentally rehearsing all the procedures, radio-call scripts, and rules.

*DSC_1271 A nervous beginners’ error on the first high-speed fly-by resulted in a small penalty for us that leg. Oh, well. Now we know. So, look out, Kansas, here we come! The verdant green of Nebraska gave way to irrigated crop circles further south. Another fly-by, a quick stop for fuel — and cookies — in Great Bend, Kansas, and back up we climbed into late afternoon sunshine.

The closer we got to the Texas Panhandle, the browner the ground became. Miles of parched emptiness slid beneath our wings. Not even a steer or a tree, just widely scattered sagebrush and the occasional dust devil ripping across the desert. West Texas ranchers hadn’t had a drop of rain since last October. We spent that night in Borger, Texas, a town nearly dwarfed by its adjacent oil refinery. Early morning found us taxiing toward the departure runway, when the GPS went dark.

Hmm. The electrical gauges didn’t look happy. Back to the ramp.

The airport manager recommended a mechanic in “nearby” (actually about 50 miles away) Dumas. “He’ll be waitin’ for you,” he promised. Despite the efforts of helpful onlookers, the airplane refused to start.

“No problem,” the manager said, “I’ll just hand-prop you…Ready? Brakes on? Contact!” With his swift two-handed tug downward on a propeller blade, the engine roared to life, just like a hundred years ago, before airplanes had electrical systems.

The mechanic, Rocky Rexrod, with his perfect TV Western hero’s name, waved at us as we landed, eager to get us back in the race.

Turned out we needed an alternator. The closest was in Lubbock, three driving hours south of Dumas. Linda and I drove a borrowed car as fast as we dared. By dusk we had the new alternator in hand, and raced back to Dumas. Rocky was in his hangar waiting for us. By midnight he’d signed off the last of the paperwork, hoping he had cured the problem. We jumped in the airplane just after sun-up to rejoin the race in Borger. If we didn’t dawdle, and the weather cooperated, there might still be time to reach Mobile — the end of the race — before the deadline.

As we neared Borger, though, our dying gauges showed that electrical problems remained. We sent a wakeup call to poor Rocky and headed back. He theorized that we now needed a couple of circuit breakers. After a futile search and agonizing hours, Rocky liberated them from another airplane. “He ain’t gonna be flyin’ this week anyhow,” the creative mechanic shrugged.

Finally we zoomed by the timing line at Borger. Typical of almost every stop we made, the windsock was standing straight out, winds gusting to 30 mph — in pretty much the wrong direction.

So off we went in very hot, very bumpy air, headed for Norman, Okla., now with a headwind, instead of yesterday’s anticipated tailwind. We were the last airplane in the race by a wide margin, and at this rate, chances were slim that we’d reach Mobile by the 7:59 p.m. deadline that night.

Linda muttered, “We ARE going to finish this race, no matter what, if only for our own satisfaction.”

The seamless taupe landscape gradually turned to grassland, and then to wooded hills. We called Norman’s control tower, descended to 200 feet above the runway, and flew past the timing line as fast as the plane would go. As we shut down, golf carts sped our way, and cheering co-eds thrust icy bottles of water and bag lunches into our grateful hands. The gas truck came barreling over, and before we could even hand over the order form, they were already pumping fuel into our tanks. An amazing 10-minute turn-around, and off we went to El Dorado, Ark.

*DSC_1360 El Dorado’s ground crew was as efficient as Norman’s, and it began to look as if we stood a chance after all. We rushed on toward Mobile’s finish line, following a swollen Mississippi River much of the way. Towering pink cauliflower clouds loomed high in the distance, and massive thunderstorms billowed on both sides, with solid shafts of extreme rain. Flashes of lightning lit up our weather display. Yet, almost straight ahead, there was a narrow, almost clear path toward the Mobile river delta and city skyline. We pressed on, full-throttle. Ms. Lima seemed to know she was headed home.

Mobile Approach cleared us direct to the Mobile Downtown Airport, and wished us luck. Downtown Tower controllers welcomed us, cleared us for our last, fast low approach, and then — it was over. We made it, with 19 luxurious minutes to spare.

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A proud Bruce Keller and his Dad were at Mobile Downtown to meet us.

By the time we reached our hotel, the air race “melt-down party” had already melted away, and Linda and I repaired to the hotel’s skyline bar for a well-deserved Azalea City toast to each other, our husbands, our sponsors, and Ms. Lima, the little airplane that could…and did.

On Sunday night, awards were given to the speediest, and the slowest. At 37th place, we were neither, but it was an unforgettable adventure, a safe flight, and a huge learning experience.

Will we do it again? Who knows? Although many women have flown it every year for decades, both Linda and I figured it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was great fun, though, and wonderful flying. We had a blast, and we met some of the most extraordinary, accomplished, inspiring women imaginable. We learned a great deal about seat-of-the-pants flying — and about aircraft electrical systems, played with state-of-the-art loaner navigation gear, and heard some most excellent stories.

What more could any pilot ask?

WANT TO TRY IT YOURSELF?

Next year’s Air Race Classic will be held June 19- 22, starting in Lake Havasu, Ariz., and wrapping up in Batavia, Ohio.

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