Nineteen teams representing 15 colleges are registered for the 56-aircraft fleet that begins the cross-country race on June 21 at Prescott, Arizona’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus. The event winds its way east with additional stops at colleges in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Georgia before ending at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus. Race officials thought it would be a good idea to pay homage to as many of those schools as possible since about one-third of the teams in the field represent collegiate aviation programs.
The route was originally laid out two years ago, explained organizer Minnetta Gardinier, who is a college professor, an Air Race Classic participant, and the co-owner of a Cessna Cardinal. Gardinier said race leaders wanted to honor the University of Illinois with a stop along the route because the college was a longtime competitor until the school shuttered its aviation program in 2014.
Competitors fly more than 2,100 nautical miles in four days during daytime VFR conditions and each leg is about 200 to 300 miles. “Those kinds of things lock in the distances and we go from there,” said Gardinier.
She said airspace and geography challenged the course designers because “we don’t want to go over mountains that are extremely hard for small planes to cross and we also avoid restricted airspace. The rest of it really kind of came together just looking at that list of aviation programs. It’s kind of a hodge-podge jigsaw puzzle.”
Taking off 30 seconds apart, competitors of all ages and backgrounds fly a variety of normally aspirated, piston-powered aircraft. According to published rules, competitors essentially “race against their own handicap, so whichever team beats their handicap speed by the most, wins.” That handicap speed is assigned after the pilot flies a defined flight pattern prior to the race, determining the plane’s best speed when flown at full power. The goal is to level the field for all of the competitors so that each team has an equal chance of victory, depending on the accuracy of their handicapping.
The aircraft themselves are inspected for safety and compliance, with large numbers posted on their vertical stabilizers or cowls, reminiscent of automobile and motorcycle race machines. If everything checks out, the winners are announced June 26 at a celebratory banquet.
Weather, wind, terrain, and airplane performance all play a role, according to the race’s website, and expenses average about $5,500, including the entry fee, charts, fuel, food, hotel, car rental, automobile gas, and incidentals.
Teams must include a pilot and a copilot and and one of them must either have 500 hours logged as pilot-in-command or possess a current instrument rating. Teams may add a third crew member for observation or flight training purposes. The 2016 registration list includes 131 participants. First-time racers are sometimes paired with an experienced “Mother Bird” pilot who can answer questions and provide guidance.
Some crew members enjoy the camaraderie so much that they enter the race again and again. Such is the case for the Baldwin Family Flyers, who are racing as a team for the fifth time. Matriarch Caroline, her daughter Lydia, and granddaughter Cara first raced together in 2012 when the event lifted off in the desert at Lake Havasu, Arizona. Caroline Baldwin is the retired founder of a literacy program in southwestern New Mexico and owns a 1973 Cherokee. Lydia lives in Colorado and is a healthcare professional with a private pilot certificate, while Cara is an aviation student at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach with instrument and commercial ratings.
“Flying the Air Race Classic with our family is energizing and gratifying,” wrote Lydia Baldwin in an email. She cited the “joy, companionship, and personal empowerment of flying small aircraft” as keys to the family’s continued involvement. She wrote that the Baldwins were “thrilled to continue in the tradition of the pioneer women pilots that cleared the skies for us.”
Gardinier began her association with the event in 2008 and said “it kind of became my summer addiction.” Her ninth race is coming up, and she’s already experienced everything from misplacing her keys at the start (they were in a badge pouch around her neck) to having to hand-remove a quarter inch of ice from a Beechcraft Musketeer on an overnight stop in Elko, Nevada during the 2014 Classic. “It was very frustrating but you can get any kind of weather, from ice to hail to whatever.”
Classic competitors have made life-long friends, said Gardinier, who counts meeting World War II Women Airforce Service Pilot Margaret Ringenberg as one of her personal highlights. “I think she was in her late 80’s that year and she had great stories to tell.” Gardinier was also wowed by Ruby Sheldon, who earned the nation’s first helicopter instrument instructor certificate and flew the race until she was 92. “You just meet some cool people in this event,” Gardinier said.
There are a few tips for first-timers, Gardinier said, that will ensure the 2016 Air Race Classic is safe and pleasant for the competitors. First, she said pilots should prepare themselves and their aircraft and always keep safety in mind. “We don’t want any close calls so we make sure everybody is well-briefed ahead of time.” Once the planning is under control, she advised pilots to relax and enjoy the experience.
She hasn’t yet cracked the top 10, though she is trying. “Last year I finished twelfth and that was my best showing,” said Gardinier, who preferred to look at the bigger picture. “I want us to be friends at the end of the race and I want to just have some fun.”