The Air Race Classic (ARC), the oldest all-women’s airplane race in the United States, is mourning the loss of veteran air racer Tookie Hensley and her race partner Pamela Bird, killed in a plane crash in Idaho on Thursday morning, along with Tookie’s husband Don.
“Tookie Hensley was an invaluable member of the ARC family,” said Air Race Classic President Lara Gaerte. “As a mentor for novice racers and a welcoming presence for bringing new pilots — including Pam Bird — into the race, she was the heart, soul and spirit of the Air Race Classic. Both ladies will be greatly missed.”
Tookie was a beloved member of the aviation community, both in her hometown of Mohave Valley, Ariz., and among the hundreds of women across the country and around the world who have flown the Air Race Classic.
A flight instructor since 1985, she and her husband, Don, founded Tookie’s Flying Service, an Arizona flight schools, in 1990. Tookie was an instrument flight instructor with more than 30,000 hours logged, an FAA designated examiner and a mentor to generations of pilots.
Tookie, 80, was a veteran of 24 Air Race Classics, winning the race in 2002 and placing in the Top Ten six times. She also flew in the Powder Puff Derby, the Palms to Pine air race and many other aviation competitions, was a member of the Rio Colorado Chapter of The Ninety-Nines, Inc., International Organization of Women Pilots, and served on the ARC Board of Directors from 1985-1991.
Tookie and Don, 84, flew everywhere together, including to every Air Race Classic. Tookie was the smiling face behind the race, and she and Don could often be found greeting old friends and new competitors at the Start. They always went out of their way to make new racers feel welcome.
Pam Bird was one of those new racers when she flew the ARC with Tookie as her partner in 2013. They placed 11th and returned to fly the race last year with Idaho seaplane pilot Tonya Rutan.
Pam, 58, was CEO of Innovative Product Technologies, founder and president of the Inventors Association of Idaho, founder of the Inventors Educational Foundation and a member of the Intermountain Chapter of The Ninety-Nines. She was also co-founder of the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center in Sagle, Idaho, with her husband, biomedical engineer and inventor Forrest Bird, who died in August.
The museum has its own private airstrip, Bird Field, where Pam, Tookie and Don took off Thursday morning in a Cessna 182 on a cross-country trip. The plane’s emergency locator transmitter went off 10 minutes later. The subsequent search and rescue operation was joined by Tonya, who found the wreckage in the mountains near Hope, Idaho.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Air Race Classic is an all-women airplane race flown over four days every June during daylight hours in visual flight conditions. Teams of two or three female pilots compete flying propeller-driven airplanes, covering a defined course of roughly 2,500 miles that varies every year.