Pilots in Race Plan a Lot, Sleep a Little

Jun 23, 2015

Air Race Classic co-pilot Jeneanne Visser with her plane at the Kalamazoo airport.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

One of the country’s oldest events for female aviators is underway. The all-women’s Air Race Classic was founded in 1929, at a time when competitions were often limited to men. This year the race includes two stops in Southwest Michigan - Three Rivers and Kalamazoo - and one of the teams is from Western Michigan University.

The pilots in the race fly a zigzag course through nine states. But the first to finish isn’t necessarily the winner. Instead, pilots strategize to beat a handicapped ground speed calculated for their plane. That means catching every tailwind and plotting the most efficient routes.

Co-pilot Jeneanne Visser of Iowa is flying her first Air Race Classic. Her plane, now parked at the Kalamazoo airport, is a few car-lengths long and seats four.

"It’s pretty crowded, you’re definitely elbow to elbow for four days straight," she says.

The schedule is demanding. Pilots don’t always get much rest.

"I’ve gotten four hours of sleep the last two nights and I think I’m doing better than some people."

And Juliet Lindrooth of Pennsylvania says that’s not the only sacrifice to speed.

"It’s about 120, 130 degrees in those airplanes. There’s no ventilation in them because you have to keep it all closed to go faster. So you don’t open the windows. It is hot, hot, hot in those airplanes," she says.

Lindrooth has finished in 13th place twice and hopes to make the top 10 this year.

Since the 1920s the flight world has opened up to women. But today only about 6 percent of US pilots are female. Air race veteran Barb Goodwin says that number’s not much higher than when the race was founded.

"So we’re still striving to get the women to be interested in aviation," she says.

Sara Karsten is the pilot for Western's team in the Air Race Classic, flying with co-pilot Katherine Vena. Karsten spoke by phone with WMUK before the start of the race about what she learned during in last year's race.

"We could have studied the terrain a little bit better to understand what our options are. When we try to fly low to the ground do we – there’s a ridge there in the mountains – do we turn left or do we turn right? Well, you need to know what’s on either side and quickly," she says.

"Weather patterns plays a big part into it, just studying those in depth ahead of time. And definitely just knowing the race rules because you can’t break them but you can at least be familiar with them and try to use them to your advantage sometimes," Karsten adds.

The race concludes on Thursday. The last stop is in Fairhope, Alabama, off the Gulf Coast. The pilots' progress can be tracked here. Western Michigan University's team is number 50.