Collegiate team wins weather-shortened Air Race Classic

July 8, 2011

A team from Jacksonville University won the Air Race Classic women’s long-distance competition after thunderstorms and instrument conditions over part of the course shortened the day-VFR-only race by five legs.

Racers share aviation with Mobile-area girls

More than just a competition, the Air Race Classic has goals of encouraging current and future women pilots and demonstrating women’s roles in aviation. This year racers ran a six-month program for girls in the Mobile, Ala., area leading up to the race.

After learning about geography, aviation careers, and more; taking rides through the Young Eagles program; and corresponding with competitors as they prepared for the race, girls in the Mobile Boys and Girls Club got to meet the racers at a terminus event on the USS Alabama. AOPA, a “full throttle" sponsor of the race, provided support for the terminus event and educational materials for a Girl Scouts event at the start.

The six-month Boys and Girls Club program was an expansion of the race’s usual youth-oriented events at the start and finish. Terry Carbonell, who worked with the girls over the course of the program, said she saw their self-confidence grow as they learned more about aviation and women in the field.

“Our ladies were showing them that you can do what you want to do and you can be what you want to be, and that college is not out of reach,” she said.

The race, scheduled to take racers on an almost 2,400-nautical-mile course starting in Iowa City, Iowa, June 21 and concluding in Mobile, Ala., June 24, started a day and a half later in Alliance, Neb., cutting the distance by almost half. Flying a Cirrus SR20, Jacksonville University senior Leah Hetzel and recent graduate Sarah Morris took top honors once the scores were tallied in the race, which is handicapped based on each aircraft’s performance.

While the winning team put in strong performances for each of the legs, Terry Carbonell, secretary of the Air Race Classic and pilot in last year’s winning team, said the pair stood out with an exceptionally strong first leg.

“They found a tailwind that nobody else found,” said Carbonell, whose team placed fourteenth in this year’s race. “…They just had such an amazing first leg.”

Because of the handicapping rules in the race, the winning team is not necessarily the first to arrive at the destination. Third-place team Joyce Wilson and Rebecca Hempel arrived at the Mobile terminus first, Carbonell said. Alice McCormack and Justyna Kincaid of the University of Illinois placed second. The winners were announced at an awards banquet June 26.

“This is pretty incredible,” Hetzel said in a press release. “We just kept jumping up and down and screaming when we found out we were No. 1.”

Hetzel and Morris competed in the race in 2010, placing fourteenth.

“We were a lot more comfortable and confident this year,” Morris said in the release. “We applied more of what we learned in class and studied the actions of the previous winners.”

According to Carbonell, wins by collegiate teams are rare, but Hetzel and Morris worked well together. She said teamwork was an essential ingredient in her own team’s win in 2010.

“You have to have really good teamwork, is the first thing,” she said. “In my team everybody has a job, and when everybody does their job it works really, really well. You need a bit of luck, … and you really do need to understand the performance of your airplane. And you need to understand weather patterns and wind patterns.”

The dismal weather that led to the shortening of the route didn’t put a damper on the event for many competitors. Race start committee chair Minnetta Gardinier and teammate Charissa Dyer-Kendler even decided to stop at all the originally scheduled checkpoints, filing IFR when necessary, before the official start of the race.

Once the race got going, “a lot of the racers said, ‘This is just the most fun we’ve had in a long time,’” Carbonell said. She said the race’s new Facebook page helped the competitors get to know each other before they even started the event.

“General aviation, it’s all about camaraderie and fun, and sharing something that’s just an amazing experience that unfortunately not everyone gets to share,” she said.