Embry Riddle Students To Compete In Cross-Country Women’s Air Race Classic

Published: Monday, June 20, 2016 - 4:44pm
Updated: Monday, June 20, 2016 - 4:45pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Shelby King (left) and Hannah Burright are one of more than 50 teams competing in the women’s Air Race Classic this year.

While the sun beat down on a tarmac lined with planes in Prescott, Ariz., Hannah Burright sat inside a Cessna 172S, going through a preflight checklist.

“So, I’m going to kind of get the cockpit ready for takeoff,” she said, “check all of the instruments and make sure that the fuel gages are set correctly.”

Outside, Shelby King circled the tiny aircraft.

She checked off her list: “Make sure all of our tie downs are done,” she said. “There’s no dents on the airplane, and our tires are all filled up, nothing’s leaking out in front, make sure that we have enough fuel and oil.”

After their checklists were crossed off, we piled into the plane and the two young women started up the engine.

This flight took about an hour on this morning, but it was practice for a much longer one they will be taking soon.

Burright is a senior at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in northern Arizona and King recently graduated. She is now a flight instructor there. And, on Tuesday, the two will be one of more than 50 teams competing in this year’s women’s Air Race Classic.

The race will be four days long and will span almost the entire country. This year, it starts at Embry Riddle in Prescott and ends at the other campus in Daytona Beach, Fla. It’s called the ‘Collegiate Cross-Country’ this year, honoring aviation programs at universities like Embry Riddle across the country.

To win, they’ll be racing their own handicap that Burright set on a test flight last month, but King flew the race last year too, and she said the competition gets intense.

“You want to beat your own time, but you’re still like, ‘I’m racing you!’” she said.

“It’s a very intense time for these pilots, they have to manage weather, what altitude they should fly at, their fuel,” said Michelle Day, Director Alumni Relations for Embry Riddle’s Prescott campus, who is helping plan this year’s race. “There’s comradery, there’s stamina, endurance, testing of yourself and what you and your team and your aircraft can handle.”

And, she said, there’s the legacy of generations of women pilots past.

“The original started in 1929, they called it the Powder Puff Derby and the women that flew in that were really, really brave and true pioneers because they were flying in aircraft that were open cockpit, no heaters, no instrumentation,” Day said. “They were flying by roads; they were by railroads, to get to their destinations, so it was very uncomfortable and very intense for them.”

The Air Race Classic carries on that tradition today with this annual race, dedicated to the tradition of trailblazing women in aviation and bringing new ones into the male-dominated field.

“In this world of aviation, it has always been so male dominated. So, it’s very important for women to show to everyone, men and women, that this is possible,” Day said.

Day is a 1991 graduate of Embry Riddle. Back then, she said about eight percent of the student body who were women. Now, about 24 percent are women, she said.

During the practice flight, Burright and King practiced flying over the Clark, Arizona airport at 200 feet above the ground. During the race, they’ll have to do this maneuver before they land at each of the 10 airports they’ll pass. It avoids a cluster of planes trying to land all at once.

But, it’s not easy. At cruising altitude, they said each bump we feel is the wind pushing us up and down about 100 feet.

Back on the ground, they power down the engine and tie the plane down.

Though they know the industry is changing, both young women said they still get looks when they step out of a plane sometimes.

“They’re like, ‘Oh you two ladies, like you flew this up here?’ And you’re like, ‘Sure did!’” King said.

But they said they’re proud they can do it.

“It’s possible, anybody can do anything that they put their mind to it, if you’re interested in it, just go for it,” Burright said.

And — “You can get pink headsets if that’s what you’re into,”  she said.

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