GAN contributing writer Amelia Reiheld and her partner, Linda Keller, will take off in the Air Race Classic June 21. We’ll follow their adventures online, but first a look at how the partnership began:
What have I gone and gotten myself into this time? It started simply enough. Complicated things usually do. I heard via the grapevine that there was a woman based at Alabama’s Mobile Regional Airport (MOB) planning to fly the Air Race Classic this year, joining the all-women cross-continental airplane derby. Happening to be in my hometown visiting, and sniffing a possible story, I gave Linda Keller a call. Soon I was sitting across from her at the FBO. “So,” I began: “Tell me about this air race, what it involves, and why you’re doing it?”
She laughed merrily…Turned out she knew about as much about air racing as I did — we’d both flown in a fun one-day air rally in Ohio, years ago for her and decades ago for me. “I just saw a poster, and thought if I don’t do this now, I might not get another chance,” she explained.
She’d heard the tales of the old “Powder Puff Derby” and its legendary pioneer pilots, determined to show skeptics that women pilots were as capable as men. And show ‘em they did, flying from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland, Ohio, over inhospitable terrain, doing their own emergency maintenance, battling ferocious weather, and garnering headlines the whole way.
Except for a hiatus during World War II, the tradition of the women’s annual transcontinental air race continues to this day. What an amazing opportunity to be a part of that history, Linda thought, and promptly sent for her own race kit.
What would the race entail? For starters, there was the prospect of flying at full throttle over 2,700 miles in four days, to nine airports, over 13 states, during day VFR conditions only, swooping very low over designated runways right at VNE, and not running into any other airplanes. Linda wasn’t sure what else, but she had a large stack of reading material, a pristine 1967 Cherokee 180, and a go-get-em attitude. Sure enough, there would be a story here, of a snowy-haired Mobile Realtor, and her crazy plans for a couple of weeks in June. I had to be on my way back to North Carolina, but we made arrangements to talk again before race day.
Then the big shocker: Linda asked if I would be interested in being her co-pilot. Me? Gulp. “Let me think about it,” I temporized.
The first question was how much of a crater would this make in the family budget. Short answer: A massive one, as we’d split the expenses 50-50. “I could take myself to Europe and stay in castles for that much,” I gasped. On second thought, I rationalized, trips to Europe can be postponed until one is too old to fly and, as Linda had already pointed out, when might this opportunity arise again?
Third thought was some concern about my sitting calmly in the right seat while somebody I hardly knew occupied the left seat of a totally-unfamiliar — and slow — airplane. Add to that spending nearly two grueling weeks with this person in very close quarters, competing against aggressive women pilots from all over the U.S. That’s just nervy!
I weighed the question carefully, considering the merits of such an experience for most of a New York minute. The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like the trip of a lifetime. “I’m in!”
Over the next few weeks, emails flew back and forth. What shall we call our team? Linda was inclined to acknowledge our mutual home town, mine by birth, and hers by adoption. Furthermore, for the first time ever, Mobile Downtown Airport will be the finish line for the race. That ought to count for something. We brainstormed, with ideas ranging from corny to comic, and eventually settled on Azalea City AvGals.
The list of duties was daunting, but most things could be accomplished from our respective homes 800 miles apart. I soon learned, much to my relief, that Linda Keller is a marvel of organizational wizardry. She filled out the detailed application and associated paperwork, and sent off checks with far too many zeroes. I would write a letter asking for sponsorships. We decided that we would donate 20% of any donated funds to Angel Flight Soars, our favorite aviation charity. The rest would go to pay for application fees, hotel rooms, fuel, and food. We compiled lists of paperwork to assemble, safety courses to complete, and other necessary preparation.
The next challenge was to learn something about flying together. On my next trip to Mobile, Linda and I climbed into her Cherokee N5174L for a little round-robin. She handed me a New Orleans sectional marked with our route, and flight plan, fired up Ms. Lima, and off we went, headed full throttle westbound for a tiny strip in southern Mississippi. Zooming down to 300 feet, the airspeed indicator right at redline, we flew the length of the runway, and off over near-endless pine plantations to the next small town. Another hair-raising fly-by, and on toward the third airport a few dozen miles east. And so it went, for most of two hours, descending over the scenic Mobile river delta, ending with a fast low approach to Mobile Downtown Airport (BFM). It was a blast. Linda is quite a self-possessed pilot and very much at home in her airplane — I never felt the slightest urge to right-seat drive.
Cockpit Resource Management as an aviation buzz phrase is very much in vogue, and in this air race, it will be crucial. The pilot’s job, I learned, is to fly the airplane, especially as Ms. Lima is not blessed with an autopilot. The co-pilot’s job is to do everything else. Why, with navigating, running checklists, keeping track of times and operating the radio, I’ll have one less thing to think about than usual — Linda will keep the airplane right-side-up. The rest will be easy, right? Ha! Fat chance.
Armed with a fistful of scrawled, disjointed notes after that first trip, I went home and designed a logical en-route checklist. The next time we flew together, a month or so later, I took my nice neat paper along. And returned home with an entirely illegible form. Back to the drawing board. First project: Redo the checklist, and this time make the spaces really big, for hurried writing in turbulence. Second project: Learn to operate a simple stopwatch. Do NOT hit the reset button in mid-leg. Third project: Learn the intricacies of the fancy new gadgetry that we’ll be using for this race. That’s the part I’m really looking forward to. I love new toys, and AnywhereMap, WX-Worx and SPOT (through PilotJunk.com) have promised to lend us their latest and greatest technological marvels.
In mid-April, with a virtual drum roll and a flurry of important-looking emails, Linda and I got our race number, Classic #6, which will give us a good early start on the first day. As newbies, we were assigned a Mother Bird, an experienced air racer who would guide us through the confusing parts, offer strategic hints and give reassurance. It augurs well that Terry Carbonell and her TeamWildMama copilot won the race last year and, even better, that she frequently flies to Mobile to talk flying with girls from the local Boys and Girls Club. This gives Linda time to glean vital information from one of the best.
Now Ms. Lima has a fresh annual inspection, her avionics are certified, and she sports a fabulous wax job. Hotel reservations are made, and sectional charts ordered. We’ve let our mice do the flying over satellite map images of the route, all 2,700+ miles of it. Our Azalea City AvGals shirts are ready. We’ll have our logbooks up-to-date, and our bags packed as lightly as possible. By the time we leave for the Iowa City starting line, Linda and a race official will have flown her timing run to calculate her race handicap, in order to compete against aircraft both faster and slower, on a level playing field.
In just a few days, we’ll be off on what promises to be an unbelievably grand adventure.
Ready for takeoff
The Air Race Classic begins June 21 in Iowa City (IOW), Iowa, with stops at Brookings Regional Airport (BKX) in South Dakota; Jamestown Regional Airport (JMS) in North Dakota; Black Hills-Ice Airport (SPF) in Spearfish, S.D; Rawlins Municipal/Harvey Airport (RWL) in Wyoming; Alliance Municipal Airport (AIA) in Nebraska; Great Bend Municipal Airport (GBD) in Kansas; Hutchinson County Airport (BGD); University of Oklahoma Westheimer Airport (OUN) in Norman, Okla.; South Arkansas Regional at Goodwin Airport (ELD) in El Dorado, Ark.; and ending June 24 at Mobile Downtown Airport (BFM) in Alabama.
For this year’s race, 50 teams have signed up, flying a variety of aircraft, including Cessna 172s and 182s, Piper Warriors, Archers, and Cherokees, Maules, Aviat Husky, Beechcraft Bonanza and Musketeer, Mooney, Diamond DA-40, Cirrus SR20, and a Grumman Tiger.
Check out GeneralAviationNews.com for daily updates on the race from our intrepid reporter, as well as a post-race story in an upcoming post.