A new pilot, a rusty pilot, and a professional pilot are putting their skills together to fly in the Air Race Classic, a 2,400-statute-mile, all-female aviation journey from Frederick, Maryland, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 20 through 23.
“It’s getting real, now,” said Paula Wivell, as she applied the No. 43 decal to the nose of a white-and-burgundy Cessna 182 two weeks prior to the start of the event. Wivell, a new pilot with just over 100 hours pilot-in-command time, will be joined by fellow AOPAngels Kathy Dondzila, the rusty pilot, and Luz Beattie, a career pilot who is as comfortable behind the yoke of a Cessna single as she is commanding the cockpit of a corporate jet.
She has earned high praise from her aviation students for her patience and encouragement and will be the coach and mentor for the trip. Beattie dishes out safety tips and airmanship skills with equal amounts of common sense and laughter. Her son was credited with coming up with the team’s catchy name—a play on the Charlie’s Angels TV show.
Wivell will handle some of the footwork and logistics along the race route, which includes stops in Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Planning and organization skills are second nature for Wivell, who performs a similar function in the Pilot Information Center for AOPA's staff pilots who fly GA aircraft as part of their daily routine. Her eyes lit up and her enthusiasm bubbled through when she first spotted the AOPAngels decal that will adorn the Cessna.
Dondzila, an instrument-rated private pilot, said she has fallen into and out of rusty pilot status, but the Air Race Classic has reignited her passion for flight. Thinking about sharpening her rusty skills as the race closes in, Dondzila said, “Some of it comes back, like getting on a bike again, and some of it doesn’t.” Dondzila has recently flown with Beattie and is learning how to work the aircraft’s equipment, including a Garmin panel, an autopilot, and a constant-speed prop, which is unfamiliar territory so far.
The group was originally scheduled just to volunteer at Frederick Municipal Airport, the starting point for the forty-first annual Air Race Classic, and the headquarters of AOPA. The group liked the idea of volunteering but wanted to take it a step further. “Volunteering was great, but I said, ‘How come we’re not doing it?’” recalled Beattie. Wivell looked into the details and helped pull the team together. Money and expenses initially were a factor, but the group came up with innovative ideas to fund their journey.
Competitors of all ages and backgrounds fly a variety of normally aspirated, piston-powered aircraft. Teams take off 30 seconds apart and race against their own handicap, which is determined partially on the best speed for that make and model of aircraft, along with other factors exclusive to the individual airplane. The goal is to level the field for all of the competitors so that each team has an equal chance of victory because of equitable handicapping.
“As we’re preparing for the race we kind of have a natural split of the roles,” explained Wivell. Beattie handled the rules and maintenance records, while Wivell “kept the loose ends tied” and Dondzila made phone calls to hotels and tackled other arrangements. She also will blog about their experience. “It’ll be an inside look at how things are going, and hopefully we’ll have some fun with it,” she hinted.
Dondzila and Wivell said they will look to Beattie for coaching, particularly with go or no-go decision making, but all three plan to share pilot duties along the route through the nation’s breadbasket.
“This has given Paula and Kathy a chance to move up to the 182 and really learn the airplane,” said Beattie. Dondzila added that “having the mental picture of where you are and where you are going so you stay ahead of the airplane—all of those are skills that need sharpening” as the air race approaches.
After first cleaning and polishing the Cessna as a team-building exercise, the three helped each other position the aircraft’s decals and readied it for the cross-country flight.
“I honestly didn’t think we‘d do it, but actually seeing it happen is beyond my wildest dreams,” said Dondzila. “We pulled it together, but AOPA got behind us in a huge way and made it happen. It’s definitely not too late to think about next year.”