WMU News

Broncos are 'too fast' in Air Race Classic

July 1, 2001

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. -- How do you finish "first" in an air race and place 30th out of 31 aircraft entered?

Actually, it is very simple, as WMU aviators Michelle Homister and Jo-Elle Warner discovered in the 2001 Air Race Classic, a transcontinental airplane race for women pilots only. Since many types of planes are allowed to race, each airplane was given a handicap in ground speed and the goal was to earn points by surpassing that speed. Because the Mooney M20R flown by the WMU team was by far the fastest among the aircraft in the race, WMU faced the greatest handicap.

Severe weather forced an early end to the 2001 Air Race Classic. The race was halted in Pratt, Kan., where the WMU team had been grounded since Tuesday evening (July 26), the evening of the race's first day, because of thunderstorms ahead on the next leg of the race.

The race was originally slated to finish in Batavia, Ohio, about 2,200 miles from the San Diego starting point. It was halted in Pratt, after four of seven anticipated legs (or stopping points), about 1,500 miles from San Diego, or about two-thirds of the original race course.

It is possible that had the race covered the full 2,225-mile course, Homister and Warner might have finished sufficiently far enough ahead of the competition to place higher in the standings, but the math was against them in terms of winning.

As an example, if the fastest airplane were expected--or "handicapped"--to finished in one-half the time of the slowest airplane, every error in navigation or unavoidable delay that cost the fastest plane 10 minutes would be equal to a 20-minute error in navigation or delay for the slowest plane. The margin of error for the fastest plane--in this hypothetical example--would be one-half that of the slowest airplane. Since there are unavoidable delays for all aircraft in the race, which may not delay the slowest plane any longer than the fastest, the faster airplane is actually at a disadvantage.

"I know it sounds odd," says Warner, "but a slower airplane is actually more competitive in this race."

Warner was a member of both this year's and last year's WMU entries in the Air Race Classic, the only two times the University has entered the 25-year-old competition. Those were also the only two times a Mooney M20R was entered in the race. Since Air Race Classic officials had no past experience in handicapping the Mooney, they were forced to use manufacturer's specifications to establish a handicap, which may have further penalized the WMU team.

According to Warner, WMU has airplanes in its fleet that would be more competitive because of having handicaps closer to the other planes entered. That would make WMU pilots more equal in terms of competing strictly on pilot ability as opposed to overcoming the handicap assigned their aircraft.

Despite the dual disappointments of an abbreviated race and a low finish, Warner says it was an excellent experience. "We met a lot of great women aviators," she says, "and learned a lot during our flight to and from San Diego."

Homister and Warner left Battle Creek on June 19 and flew the race course in reverse from Batavia to San Diego as a way of familiarizing themselves with the route and terrain. On the way, they stopped in Phoenix, where they were greeted by several WMU alumni.

Homister and Warner were the 26th plane to depart San Diego on the morning of July 26, at 8:45 a.m. PDT. They completed four legs of the race on the first day, and were the first plane to arrive in Pratt, at 5:45 p.m. CDT, about 90 minutes before the next plane arrived.

Most of the airplanes in the competition did not arrive in Kansas until the second day of the race (July 27), but by early that afternoon, all 31 aircraft in the competition were safely on the ground in Pratt. Because of the severe weather ahead, none of the planes, beginning with the WMU entry, was allowed to proceed. Final standings were calculated on the four legs of the race that were completed.

Jo-Elle Warner is a flight instructor in College of Aviation and a 2000 graduate of the WMU aviation program. Michelle Homister is an April aviation graduate. In the June 2000 Air Race Classic, Warner and Jennifer Richard, then a flight instructor in the College of Aviation, flew from Tucson, Ariz., to Hyannis, Mass.

The race is made up of two-woman teams of all ages from all over the nation. They pilot fixed-wing aircraft and can fly only during daylight hours under VFR (visual flight rules) conditions.

The annual Air Race Classic is a women-only cross country air race. This year's event was designated as "The Silver Classic" to commemorate the race's 25 years. The Air Race Classic was begun in 1977, after the Powder Puff Derby (a previous women-only air competition) was discontinued. The first Air Race Classic had 27 planes. It began in California and ended in Ohio, the same as originally intended for this year's 25th anniversary.

The Air Race Classic is sponsored by the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots. Famed aviator Amelia Earhart organized the group when she invited all of the 114 licensed women pilots in the United States to a meeting at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, in 1929. The group became "The Ninety Nines" because of the 114 licensed women pilots invited to the first meeting, 99 attended. Earhart was selected as the organization's first president.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 616 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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