WMU pilots 'Go West' to compete in decades-old women's air race

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Photo of pilots Elizabeth Howerton and Sara Karsten.

From left: Elizabeth Howerton and Sara Karsten

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A pair of Western Michigan University women aviation students headed west June 8 to compete in the 2014 Air Race Classic, a cross-country flight competition that dates back to the days of Amelia Earhart.

Elizabeth Howerton of McHenry, Illinios, and Sara Karsten of Rogers City will compete in the June 16-19 Air Race Classic that will see aviators travel from Concord, California, to New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. The race is 2,338 nautical miles long and will challenge pilots to race against their own best speed in the airplane of their choice.

Howerton and Karsten will pilot one of the College of Aviation's Cirrus SR-20 aircraft as they compete against more than 50 other teams flying small aircraft through 10 intermediate stops to reach New Cumberland with the fastest time. Of the more than 50 teams and 100-plus women of all ages competing, 14 teams this year represent aviation colleges around the nation. This is the first time since 2008 a WMU team has entered the event. In 2005, WMU pilots won the collegiate division.

"We haven't sent a team for a few years now, but this is too important an event and we're too committed to the role of women in aviation to let this opportunity go by," says Capt. Dave Powell, dean of the College of Aviation. "Elizabeth and Sara will have a chance to showcase the quality of our students, program and equipment, and they'll act as ambassadors at locations across the nation."

About the team

Howerton, the WMU team's co-pilot, is a senior at WMU with a double major in aviation flight science and aviation science and administration. She works as a dispatcher and scheduler at the College of Aviation and is working on her certification to become a flight instructor. She is a 2009 graduate of McHenry High School.

Team pilot Karsten earned a bachelor's degree in aviation flight science in 2011 and is now working on a second bachelor's degree in aviation maintenance technology. She also is a flight instructor at the college. Karsten is a 2005 graduate of Onaway High School.

Air Race Classic

The Air Race Classic, part of a long tradition of women's air races, dates back to 1929. Air racing became popular in the 1920s, but women pilots were forbidden to race against men, so they started their own race.

The high-profile race is billed as "the only all-woman, cross-country event." Entrants fly under visual flight rules during daylight hours and all fly fixed-wing aircraft. Since many types of planes are used to compete in the race, each plane is given a handicap in ground speed, and the goal is to have the actual ground speed be as far over the handicap speed as possible. The pilots have the leeway to play the elements by holding out and timing their travel for better weather or wind conditions, for instance. The objective is to fly the "perfect" cross-country course. In this type of race, the official standings are not released until the final entrant has crossed the finish line—and that last arrival could be the winner.

A map of the race route and additional information can be found at airraceclassic.org. Howerton and Karsten expect to file updates on their team Facebook page and on Twitter. The page features a video of the team talking about the history and traditions of the race.