WMU News

WMU women aviators compete in classic national race

June 11, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Two Western Michigan University women will leave Wednesday, June 16, to head for the start of the 2004 Air Race Classic, a women's, cross-country event that will take competitors on a round-robin journey that begins and ends in Wichita, Kan.

Amanda J. Gruden, lead flight instructor for WMU's College of Aviation, will share piloting duties with Sarah Tower, a June 2003 graduate of the University's aviation flight science program, for the June 23-26 race that has attracted women aviators from across the nation since the days of Amelia Earhart.

Gruden, a 2000 graduate of WMU and a veteran of the 2003 Air Race Classic, is a native of Milan, Mich. Tower, who is from Brighton, Mich., recently completed a four-month internship with Atlantic Southeast Airlines. She is now a flight instructor for the College of Aviation.

This is the fifth time a WMU team has competed in the high-profile race, which is billed as "the only all-woman, cross-country event." This year, for the first time, the WMU team will abandon its previous use of the college's more sophisticated aircraft and opt for a single-engine Cessna 172--the plane routinely used by the college for flight training. The move will allow the team to avoid the hefty handicaps placed on previous WMU teams and put the women in a plane they fly daily in their flight instruction duties.

"The round-robin format is pretty unusual and it means we won't always have the wind at our back, like in previous races," says Gruden. "This competition is all about winds. The lower the altitude you fly the better, because the wind speeds are slower and more consistent at low altitudes. This time, we'll be flying a plane that is similar to those flown by other teams, and one we're both really comfortable with."

A total of 33 teams, including five from U.S. colleges and universities, will take part in this year's race, which is about 2,400 miles in length. The annual event grew out of the Women's Air Derby, which began in 1929. Amelia Earhart was the first president of the 99s, the organization that began the race. Two-person teams from around the nation compete in the event. University teams compete for the overall event title as well as for a separate collegiate trophy offered as part of the competition.

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.

Teams will race their planes from Wichita west to Lamar, Colo.; North Platte, Neb.; and Gillette Wyo. They then will head east to Huron, S.D.; Eveleth, Minn.; and Sheboygan Wis.; before heading back to Wichita by way of Hannibal, Mo. Competitors will likely use three full days or more to complete the course, depending on weather conditions.

WMU's Tower says she's eager for the challenge and is looking forward to the opportunity to fly over the different types of terrain they'll encounter in the plains and the mountainous areas of the nation.

"It will be good experience to use my skills in areas with very different kinds of visual references," she says.

Gruden says the first day of the race will be the most difficult because they'll be covering lots of airspace, checking in with several towers and encountering mountainous terrain.

"It will be crowded, too," she notes, since the 33 teams will be leaving Wichita at 30-second intervals and all will be flying at differing air speeds, but at similar altitudes.

The WMU team has been preparing for the race by practicing the low-altitude fly-bys they'll need to complete at official race checkpoints. They've also been honing their departure techniques and doing short cross-country courses at very low altitudes. But for Tower and Gruden, the history of the event is as intriguing as the technical skills involved.

"I'm a huge history buff and the tradition of this race really is a big part of the excitement," says Tower. "I've been interested in competing in this for about three years--ever since I learned about the race from a friend who was on an earlier team."

A map of the race route is available online at <www.airraceclassic.org/pages/6/index.htm>. Those interested will be able to follow the race's progress online on the WMU News Web site at <www.wmich.edu/wmu/news>. Gruden and Tower expect to file daily reports on their progress for posting on that site.

Gruden is a 1996 graduate of Milan High School and the daughter of Richard and Cynthia Gruden or Milan, Mich. Tower, is a 2000 graduate of Hartland High School and the daughter of Tom and Lori Tower of Brighton, Mich.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

WMU News
Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
269 387-8400