Words by Jamie Brian | Photo by Chris Spegal
Nine years after women earned the right to vote, they took to the skies in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby. Twenty female pilots, including Amelia Earhart, competed in the 2,700-mile air race from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland. At the time, only 70 women in the United States held pilot’s licenses, according to the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots.
Today, the tradition of fearlessness and defying convention continues with the all-female Air Race Classic, a 2,400-mile course that must be completed in four days during daylight hours. The Air Race Classic celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2016.
Kent State was represented for the first time in the race by Jaila Manga, a junior majoring in flight technology, and Carissa Marion, a Kent State graduate and former flight instructor for the aviation program. Manga will crawl back into the cockpit for the 2017 Air Race Classic in Frederick, Maryland.
When Manga heard that Kent State was considering submitting a team, she was ecstatic.
“I was really excited that they were considering letting me go,” she says. “I’ve never really flown outside of this portion of the country, and the opportunity to fly over the Rocky Mountains seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Manga, who had her first flight lesson in spring 2015 at the Kent State Airport, was inspired to get involved with aviation during a family trip to Florida when she was in fifth grade.
“We took off, and I just kind of looked at my mom and said, ‘I think I want to be a pilot,’” Manga says.
She followed her passion a step further this past summer when she participated in the Air Race Classic. The race began on June 21 in Prescott, Arizona, and finished in Daytona Beach on June 24.
Preparation for race day began a week before the planes lined up in Arizona as Manga and Marion planned their route from Kent to Prescott and hydrated for the hot days ahead, flying over the desert.
On the first day of the race, Manga’s plane was one of the last to take off, and with the wave of a flag, her Cessna 172 began its roll down the runway and into the sky.
“The first thing we saw was a mountain pass in front of us, so we had to make sure that we were climbing at an adequate enough rate that we could clear it,” Manga says.
After Manga set the plane for the correct altitude and heading, she began preparing for her first flyby. In a race, there are eight to 10 stops, and racers are required to fly a timing line at each one. A table of judges and spotters sit in a designated area adjacent to the taxiway or runway flyby path with stopwatches to time planes. To perform the timing line, the plane is only 200 feet above the ground and flying at full throttle.
The team’s first stop was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After spotting the airport, Manga and Marion briefed each other on the flyby with information from their race binder and circled back to land.
“It was a very crowded fuel stop, but after we refueled, we took off again,” Manga says.
After three hours of flying, the team stayed in Midland, Texas, for the night. The next day, they made it to Champaign, Illinois.
“It was a really long day, probably the longest we had,” Manga says. “There was a stop in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and we finished in Illinois.”
For Manga, who has spent most of her time flying in Ohio, one of the most interesting parts of the race was watching the changing terrain as she travelled across the United States.
“We started in Arizona and the elevation was around 5,000 feet. When we got to Daytona, it was down to 13 feet,” she says. “I think I’ve flown over the Rocky Mountains in an airliner, but it doesn’t really compare to flying over on your own.”
From Illinois, Manga’s team headed to the race terminus in Daytona Beach and arrived on June 23. As they were coming in to land, they could see the Daytona International Speedway and beach-goers on the sand.
“Daytona Beach is a very busy airport with regional jets flying in, so there was a lot of traffic and radio communication,” Manga says. “As excited as we were to finish, we were just focused on getting back to land.”
The race opened Manga’s eyes to a future in the aviation industry by talking with other racers.
“One thing that surprised me was how many people have done this multiple times,” Manga says. “There are a lot of experienced female pilots in this race, some who have done this 10 or more times.”
Robin Turner, a pilot from Pennsylvania, is one of those return racers. Turner’s father was an aviation enthusiast who brought his daughter to air shows, but it wasn’t until 2003 that she decided to take up flying.
Turner was vacationing in the Virgin Islands and flew in a turboprop plane from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Saint Thomas. This was a small flight of eight passengers, the only crewmember being the pilot.
“They weighed us and weighed our bags. Based on weight, I was placed in the copilot’s seat,” Turner says. “I had a bird’s eye of everything that was going on.”
Seeing a pilot in action inspired Turner to become a pilot herself. She had a discovery flight lesson at Allegheny County Airport the following weekend, and she has been hooked on aviation ever since.
Turner flew the Air Race Classic in 2010 and 2011. She still remembers her first timing leg flyby.
“Our first leg, flying full throttle became normal after about 15 minutes, but that first timing line flyby was the biggest adrenaline rush ever,” Turner says. “The blood was pounding in my ears and all I could think was ‘hold it, hold, then release!’”
Aside from the in-flight experiences that accompany a race, memories are also made on the ground. During Turner’s first race, her team stopped in Cameron, Missouri.
“As we landed and stopped to park, a lady ran over to the copilot side,” Turner says. “My partner popped the door, and the lady reached her head in with a tray of fresh-picked strawberries from her garden and a plastic champagne glass for each of us.”
While waiting for the weather to clear up, the pilots shared airplane-shaped sandwiches and cookies as they sat in folding chairs in an airport hangar.
There were female pilots of all ages and walks of life, ranging from a 14-year-old girl racing with her aunt to 91-year-old aviation legend Ruby Sheldon. Sheldon was recognized by the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum for being the first woman to hold a Helicopter Instrument Instructor certificate.
“She sat and told us story after story,” Turner says. “Just seeing some of the young girls’ faces light up as she told of climbing out her bedroom window to go take lessons because her mother would have freaked out was priceless.”
Turner doesn’t have any immediate plans to fly in the Air Race Classic again, but it has left an lasting impact on her life. If one of her pilot friends ever wants to experience the race, she says she will be back at the starting line with them.
“I had a great sense of accomplishment learning to fly and passing the checkride, but air racing built upon that accomplishment and totally empowered me to be more and do more,” Turner says.
Minnetta Gardinier, who teaches at the University of Iowa, is another repeat racer. She has raced nine times and now serves on the Air Race Classic Board of Directors, where she helps to plan the race route. Gardinier began flying in 2003 at Iowa City Municipal Airport and flew her first Air Race Classic in 2008.
Now an accomplished racer, Gardinier remembers being a rookie. The day of her first race, Gardinier couldn’t find the keys to her plane. She had a duplicate key made, but it wouldn’t work. She began hurriedly searching her flight bag for her original keys as the other planes were ready to taxi out.
“I went to the cargo area and started tossing bags out,” Gardinier says. “My new racer friends are looking out of their plane windows wondering why we’re not starting up and why I’m tossing bags out of the plane.”
After ransacking the cargo compartment, Gardinier found her key in the badge holder pouch around her neck.
Gardinier has come a long way since her “rookie racer” days, but each race still presents different challenges and creates new memories. One race that stands out to her is the 2011 race from Iowa City to Mobile, Alabama.
“The race was supposed to start Tuesday morning, and there was a big storm that was heading across the Midwest and toward Iowa,” Gardinier says.
The weather was predicted to be IFR, which stands for instrument flight rules. The Air Race Classic requires VFR or visual flight rules. Pilots aren’t permitted to fly through the clouds. A decision was made to cancel the start in Iowa City and move all racers to Alliance, Nebraska, to begin the race.
“I was really disappointed and I told my copilot, ‘I would really like to fly that part of the race,’” Gardinier says.
Even though this leg was no longer officially a part of the race, Gardinier and her teammate were both instrument certified and decided to take off for Brookings, South Dakota.
Approaching the airport in South Dakota, Gardinier’s team announced their intentions to land on the radio.
“A guy came on the radio and said, ‘We thought they cancelled the race!’ I said, ‘They did cancel it, but we’re just flying through anyway,’” Gardinier says.
They were the only team to fly through the four cancelled stops, and they were recognized for it at the end of the race. The top 10 air race finishers receive cash prizes, and the finishers who fly the fastest leg, or flight from one airport to another, are eligible for “leg prizes.”
“There were no leg prizes for those first four stops, so they gave them all to us,” Gardinier says. “It’s funny because I’ve never been in the top 10 finishers, so now when I’m at the race I say the only way I can win prizes is to fly IFR.”
For Gardinier, it seems the best race memories are the ones that are unplanned.
“We got stuck in Elko, Nevada, for two nights because the weather between Elko and Pinedale, Wyoming, had snow and ice in the third week of June,” Gardinier says.
They had to stay two nights in Elko, and there were 12 other planes that were also stuck there.
“When you’re stuck, everybody kind of hangs out together. They’re watching the weather and they’re talking to each other,” Gardinier says. “You really do make a lot of friends.”
Gardinier calls the Air Race Classic her “fly camp,” where she can connect with over 100 female pilots.
These women come from different states and have different levels of experience with air racing, but something keeps bringing them back.
Gardinier and Manga will race again in the 2017
Air Race Classic. Manga will race alongside a new teammate, and Gardinier will grace the skies again with her 2015 teammate, Jeneanne Visser.
Every race is different, but Manga feels ready to be back in the cockpit.
“A lot of my first race was learning the ropes of how things work,” Manga says. “Knowing what to expect this year will be a big help.”
Finishing one race is just the beginning. She envisions a future among the clouds.
“I’d like to be able to do what I love and fly for the rest of my life,” Manga says. “My goal is to become an airline captain.”