Racing an Airplane 2,656 Miles across the U.S.

Their team shirt

Alexandrian Comes in Fourth

By Glenda C. Booth

July 13, 2018

The pilots “Pledged” their airplanes at every opportunity. “You’ve got to do everything you can,” explained Morgan Mitchell, an Alexandrian who raced a Cessna Skylane 182T airplane in the June all-women Air Race Classic (ARC) from Texas to Maine. All along the 2,656 route, pilots diligently rubbed Pledge furniture polish over their aircrafts’ entire surface to reduce resistance. Then, they “Windexed” the windshields to remove every bug because every little critter reduces airflow. “‘Pledging’ and ‘Windexing’ can save .01 knots,” Mitchell explained.

Dreyfuss “Pledged” the airplane and Mitchell “Windexed” the windshield.

A 32-year-old mom and wife, Mitchell flew with copilot Debi Dreyfuss of Potomac, Maryland, and came in fourth out of 43 in the 42nd annual Air Race Classic. “Making the top five was really exciting,” she said, in this, her first race. Dreyfuss has done the race eight previous times but never made the top ten.

But Mitchell’s no amateur. She has a private pilot’s license and by day is a space analyst for the Air Force which involves satellites and space systems. In her Air Force training, she flew mini-fighter planes, the Northrop T38 Talon, aircraft that can break the sound barrier. “You turn on the afterburners and go whoosh!” she remarked.

Mitchell and Dreyfuss are “members” of an elite group. Only seven percent of U.S. pilots are women. And far fewer race airplanes.

The Race

The Mitchell-Dreyfuss team was one of the 55 teams of 119 women, ages 20 to 89, from 34 states and five foreign countries that entered the race. It started on Tuesday, June 19, in Sweetwater, Texas, and pilots had until Friday, June 22, 5 p.m. to fly 2,656 miles on a pre-established route of nine legs and land in Fryeburg, Maine. There were several mother-daughter teams and 22 collegiate teams, including one from Virginia’s Liberty University with co-pilots Demornye Joyce and Megan Bradshaw. On flying, Bradshaw remarked, “There’s no time to be emotional in the cockpit.”

The Fryeburg, Maine, airport terminal. Fryeburg Selectman Tom Klinepeter welcomed the racers to this town near the New Hampshire border.

Navigating required pilots to strategize on how many legs to fly each day, where to spend the night and how to factor in wind, rain, terrain and airplane performance. It’s “the epicenter of women’s air racing, the ultimate test of piloting skill and aviation decision-making for female pilots of all ages and from all walks of life,” says the race’s website.

Race Rules

Racers can fly only in daylight with three miles of visibility and a 1,000-foot ceiling. Planes must be fixed wing and non-turbocharged, non-supercharged piston-powered airplanes with between 100 and 600 horsepower. Each airplane must have two pilots with at least 100 hours experience as the “pilot-in-command” and one must have 500 hours.

Each leg of the prescribed route is 280-320 statute miles. Officials designate certain airports on the route for “flybys” to record the aircrafts’ times. At these checkpoints, pilots can land or continue on, but they must fly parallel to the runway past a pole designed as a “flyby” point where officials record their time. Mitchell explains, “Pilots, must hit every checkpoint. How you get there is up to you.”

Officials assign a handicap speed specific to each individual airplane so that planes can compete on an equal footing. This means that teams race against their own handicap. The team that beats their handicap speed by the most wins. In June, the winning Tennessee team had a speed of 154.148 mph, beating their handicap by 11.197 mph, barely edging past the second-place team called the Houston Hot Flashes.

The prizes: first, $5,000; second, $3,000; third, $2,000 and a prize to each leg winner.

Going Awry

“Nothing went according to plan,” Mitchell commented, calmly walking across the sunny Fryeburg airport tarmac on June 22 and smiling for the landlubber greeting parties.

Mitchell pushing her airplane, racer #20, to the refueling spot.

When she and many other racers reached the end of the second leg, Beatrice, Nebraska, population 12,459, an ominous stationary front stretched from Minnesota to Arkansas. “We got stuck there with all the other airplanes,” Mitchell said, and endured many long hours staring at radar and satellite images and studying winds and weather forecasts, true tests of their aeronautical decision-making skills.

Learning that the few hotels in Beatrice were full, they luckily found overnight lodging with a race volunteer. Then, up and at it again, they “made their way through the storm” with instruments, which officials had authorized given the conditions, as the storm moved east. They flew through the storm a second time, to Auburn, Indiana, stop five. “We picked our way through the storm,” Mitchell recounted. “That storm chased us across the United States the whole race.”

Finally, on Friday, the race’s last day, in the Penn Yan airport, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, stop eight and the last flyby before the terminus, the weather was clear and calm. Here, they again had to strategize. Mitchell and Dreyfuss waited all day, analyzing the winds online and on weather apps. “We waited all day for good tailwinds. A little bit of favorable tailwinds can make a difference,” she explained. And she’s glad they waited.

By Friday’s end, of nine legs, only legs one, two and nine counted, because of the disruptive storm. Twelve airplanes turned around or dropped out.

The Race’s Origins

The race’s roots trace to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby in which 20 women, including Amelia Earhart, raced from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. Earhart came in third in the heavy plane division. Racing continued through the 1930s, stopped for a while and then resumed after World War II when the All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, also dubbed “the Powder Puff Derby,” was launched in 1947. The derby had its final flight in 1977 and the Air Race Classic continued the tradition of women’s racing.

Stepping off the Fryeburg tarmac, Missouri racer Teresa Camp sniffed her shirt’s sweaty armpits. “We earned those wet spots,” she quipped. Mitchell and Dreyfus won $1,500. But it wasn’t about the money. It was about the challenge – storms, tailwinds, bug-free airplanes and all (no powder puffs involved). “It was a good test of my ability as a pilot and planner,” she offered. “I hope to do it again. I’ve gotta beat my record.”

For four days, Mitchell’s mother, Marylu Wilson, was glued to her computer in Vancouver, Washington, monitoring all the airplanes’ movements. On her daughter’s feat, she said, “She’s phenomenal. She is an accomplished woman.”

The 2019 race will be June 18 to 21 from Jackson, Tennessee, to Welland, Ontario.

Mitchell and Dreyfuss land their airplane, race #20

BOX

The Sweetwater Texas Avenger Field was a fitting start point because it was the training base for trail-blazing, World War II Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). WASPs were the first women pilots to fly American military aircraft. Because only male pilots were allowed to fly military aircraft at the war’s frontlines, the women pilots’ jobs were to ferry airplanes across the country and haul cargo. 2018 is the WASPs’ 75th anniversary.

Earhart’s philosophy: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”