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Broncos in air race from Montana to Massachusetts

June 23, 2008

BATTLE CREEK, Mich.--Two Western Michigan University aviators are set to leave Bozeman, Mont., Tuesday, June 24, for the start of the 2008 Air Race Classic, a women's cross-country event that will take competitors across the nation to a finish line on the Atlantic coast in Mansfield, Mass.

For the June 24-27 race, pilot Meghan Burlager, a WMU flight instructor and a December 2007 graduate of the College of Aviation, will share cockpit duties with co-pilot Betsy Taylor, a senior aviation flight science major who is working on her flight instructor license. This is the ninth year WMU has entered a team in the race, which has attracted women aviators from across the nation since the days of Amelia Earhart.

The duo left Battle Creek's W.K. Kellogg Airport June 19 to fly some of the race course in reverse before arriving in Bozeman, for pre-race ceremonies. They'll compete against 35 teams in the 2,009-mile transcontinental race. Over the next four days, competitors will fly to checkpoints in Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and New York before coming to the finish line in Mansfield, just south of Boston.

Burlager, who hails from Fraser, Mich., and Taylor, who is from McBain, Mich., are both new to the race. They'll be the third WMU team to fly one of the college's new Cirrus S20 aircrafts in the race. The 2006 WMU team flew a Cirrus to a fourth place finish, the best-ever showing for a WMU team in the annual event. Last year's team placed second in the collegiate division and 12th overall, with severe weather preventing 11 teams from finishing the race.

This year's team has been talking to the members of earlier team and watching the erratic weather over the country's midsection.

"It snowed in Bozeman just a couple of days ago," marveled Taylor before leaving Battle Creek. "But we're used to snow. It's the mountain flying that will be a new thing for us, and we'll do that on the first day out of Bozeman.

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.

Leaving the Bozeman airfield at 30-second intervals, competitors will fly at differing air speeds, but at similar altitudes as they race along this year's course. A total of 36 teams, including several from other U.S. colleges and universities, will take part in this year's race. 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.

Burlager says the key to flying a competitive race are good planning and having a race team that communicates well during every second of the flight.

"Our plane has a pretty significant handicap, so our strategy is all about planning and communicating," she says.

University teams compete for the overall event title as well as for a separate collegiate trophy offered as part of the competition. In 2005, the WMU team captured the collegiate trophy and an eighth-place overall finish.

Both WMU women are members of Women in Aviation and say they are looking forward to the race as much for the opportunity to meet longtime women aviators as for the competition itself. They say they'll welcome the input of the "mother birds," more experienced racers who are paired with younger flyers to offer advice. Still, they're out to win and have set a personal goal of winning back the collegiate trophy this year.

A map of the race route and additional information can be found at www.airraceclassic.org. Burlager and Taylor expect to file daily reports on their progress once the race begins. The reports will be published online in WMU News at www.wmich.edu/news.

For the second consecutive year, the WMU Air Race Classic team is competing with the support of corporate sponsorship provided by L-3 Avionics Systems of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Related articles
2008 Air Race Classic 'flight log'
Broncos place 11th in national women's flight event

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

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