Air Race Classic: Airplanes and roses

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 23, 2006

By Adam Hammer, staff writer

While Caroline Baldwin was co-piloting a Cessna single-engine airplane in the Air Race Classic that started Tuesday in Mesa, Ariz., her husband was making a trip by car from their home in Silver City, N.M., to the race’s finish line in Menominee, Mich. Little did Baldwin know that Bill pulled off the road for a surprise stop in Albert Lea to wish her luck down the final stretch.

&8220;She doesn’t know I’m here,&8221; Bill Baldwin said shortly after noon Thursday while waiting for her to fly in for fueling at the Albert Lea Municipal Airport. &8220;I’m going to surprise her with a rose and some chocolate.&8221;

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Baldwin and pilot Janet Yoder took off from Falcon Field in Mesa, Ariz., Tuesday with almost 40 other competing flight teams, all made up of women, in the 30th annual Air Race Classic.

Each airplane contains a team of two and both of them must be licensed pilots. Baldwin received her license to fly at age 63 after retiring with her husband. This is her fourth year competing in the Air Race Classic.

&8220;The race is about how well you know yourself as a pilot and about how well you know your plane,&8221; Bonnie Johnson,&160; assistant director with the Air Race Classic Board of Directors. &8220;When they land, we tell them, &8216;When you finish this race, you’re unique and you’re a winner.’&8221;

Johnson jingled when she walked because of the adorning charms on her necklace from the 13 Air Race competitions she has flown in. She was taking a break from this year’s race because of a family illness.

During last year’s competition, Johnson and co-pilot Carol Foy took third place and won $2,000. Foy is co-piloting with Gretchan Jahn this year in a 280 horsepower Mooney M20R.

There are many different experience levels of pilots who fly in the race. When pilots fly in the race for the first time, they are considered a &8220;baby bird&8221; and are assigned a &8220;mama bird,&8221; Johnson said. Johnson said she always remembers her mama birds, Marjorie Thayer and Ruby Sheldon, who are flying this year’s race.

&8220;This is a tradition we’re trying to keep going,&8221; Johnson said.

Competing in the Air Race Classic is based largely on strategy and the ability to read winds and weather. Reading the weather can be a challenge, given the differing climates throughout the route, but if a team can catch a strong tail wind it can give them a big advantage.

&8220;In Arizona, it’s so hot and dry and as you start to move west, you even start to sweat just because of the humidity change,&8221; Janet Mansfield Cannon, a pilot flying the race with teammate Judy Longenecker, said.

As the planes make their voyage, they can stop for refueling and breaks every 300 miles at eight different airports. Other cities with stops included Santa Teresa, N.M.; Ozona and Bryan, Texas; Bastrop, La.; Ada, Okla.; and Lawrence, Kan.

The planes in the race are all single-engine, non-supercharged, certified airplanes. They are stock or minimally modified with 145 to 570 horsepower.

Racers use daytime visual flight rules, which limits them to flying only during the day. Scoring techniques have each plane assigned a handicap speed and the goal is to have the actual ground speed be as far over the handicap speed as possible, according to the Air Race Classic Web site. That allows pilots the latitude to play the elements and use weather and wind to their advantage. Planes must land by dusk.&160;

By Thursday morning, there were already a few planes at the finish in Menomonee, Mich., but that does not mean they’ve won. Because of assigned handicaps, the winner could be the last arrival. Again with stops, the competition comes back to strategy. Some of the racers stayed in Albert Lea last night hoping to catch a good wind in the morning while others ventured ahead down the final stretch before sundown.

Others, including the plane carrying pilot Karen Redman of Faribault, will be coming through today.

The Air Race Classic is based on the first Women’s Air Derby in August of 1929 when 20 pilots, including Amelia Earhart raced from Santa Monica, Calif. to Cleveland, Ohio. After World War II, women’s flight racing continued under the All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, more commonly known as the Powder Puff Derby. The Air Race Classic took over in 1977 after the 30th and final AWTAR flight.

&8220;These ladies wanted to show the guys that they could fly as well,&8221; Ed Merkel, Johnson’s husband, said.

Merkel has flying in his blood, he said. He was a fighter pilot for 20 years and also has built numerous planes. He was at the Albert Lea Municipal Airport with Johnson this week to help judge the stop.

Although the race route is different each year, the length of the race is always about 2,500 miles. This year’s race is 2,478 miles.

Johnson said she and Merkel came to Albert Lea from Kansas to judge the stop since she had family in the area. Her aunt and uncle August and Alice Johnson of Albert Lea and cousin Francie Heers of Austin were at the airport Thursday to visit and watch the racers come in.

Other members of the community showed up to watch the airplanes come in and take off and talk to some of the pilots. Mitch and Joel Koenecke, brothers, took an up-close tour of Mary Shyne Build and Jennifer Jorgensen’s Cessna 172-XP 210 horsepower airplane. The Koenecke’s were visiting from Delano at their grandparents home in Albert Lea.

&8220;Another aspect to this competition is showing the importance of general aviation and to show that it’s safe,&8221; Jorgensen said. &8220;It’s a major part of our lives.&8221;