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September 17, 2003
Ohio University flyers compete in Air Race Classic
By Joseph Hughes

Following in the footsteps of Amelia Earhart, an Ohio University senior and an instructor recently competed in the 27th annual Air Race Classic. Dotting the skies from Kansas to Kitty Hawk, Susan Grundler and Kristin Shoemaker followed the path of myriad female aviators dating back to the early 20th Century.

Departing from Pratt, Kan., on June 21 in a Cessna 172 supplied by the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology's Department of Aviation, Grundler, BSA '03, and Shoemaker, BSA '02, traveled 2,400 miles, finishing three days later in Mateo, N.C. Dubbed the "Flight into History," the 2003 Air Race Classic paid tribute to the centennial of the Wright Brothers' historic flight with a fly-by of famed Kitty Hawk, N.C., on the way to the finish.

quote Both University fliers appreciated the competitive nature of the Classic; for instance, there were a few teams not above trying to confuse or deceive other racers. The majority of participants, however, were more than willing to forge a bond with each other, including newcomers like Grundler and Shoemaker.

"There was such a camaraderie among the teams," says Shoemaker. "Being able to share your experiences with other women who have been where you've been was a tremendous experience. It was just amazing."

Each competing plane is assigned a handicap speed, with the goal of getting its ground speed as far over the handicap speed as possible. With each team flying against its own speed, any entry has an equal chance at victory. The Classic is not a test of speed; instead, it measures the pilots' proficiency and overall excellence. The official standings are not released until the final competitor crossed the finish line; the last arrival can actually be the winner, too.

Grundler - now also an instructor - and Shoemaker finished fourth among the four collegiate participants in the classic, 26th overall. The pair earned a medal for a fourth-place finish on one of the race's legs. Many of the Air Race Classic's other participants were veterans of the sky. Elaine Roehrig of the winning duo, for instance, has 58 years of flight experience and has participated in 14 Air Race Classics.

"Being one of only four college teams, we were intimidated at first," Shoemaker says. "Even some of the other colleges had fielded teams in the race for 10 years. Some of the other women were so unbelievable."

Also unbelievable were the efforts of Grundler and Shoemaker.

"That there were only four collegiate teams speaks volumes about the hard work of Susan and Kristin," says Department of Aviation Chair Juan Merkt. "It required a lot of preparation and professional teamwork. This is the first time we've participated in the Air Race Classic, so it took the support of the University and the Aviation Department as well."

Grundler and Shoemaker originally learned about the Air Race Classic from a brochure. Interested, they looked into the race, its history and what it would take to field an Ohio University team. They put together a proposal, and were ready to support themselves, renting an airplane. To their surprise and pleasure, Merkt wholeheartedly backed the idea, agreeing to pay fees and supply the airplane.

"The fact that Ohio University supported us so much was amazing," says Shoemaker. "They paid our entry fee and even lent us the plane. It's amazing to know how behind us the University has been."

An all-women's air race has existed since 1929, when twenty pilots - including Earhart - raced from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland in the First Women's Air Derby. Racing continued through the 1930s and resumed following World War II with the All Women's Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR).

"There aren't words to describe the feelings we share," Grundler says. "Amelia Earhart was an inspiration to everyone and to know that Kristin and I were involved in the same race she was is so cool."

When the AWTAR finished its 30-year run in 1977, the Air Race Classic began. Twenty-seven years later, the extended amateur cross-country race featured more than 30 teams, including four participating in the inaugural Collegiate Challenge Trophy.

"If you look at aviation programs at universities nationwide, you'll see more men than women," Merkt says. "We hope young girls look at the Classic for inspiration and at women like Susan and Kristin as role models. The women of our program are very active in extracurricular offerings and are quite motivated.

"For instance, women make up approximately 10 percent of our students; however, nearly half of our Flight Team are women. Our female students also participate in a Women in Aviation chapter, Alpha Eta Rho (an international aviation fraternity) and in our new airport executive training program."

What message does the Air Race Classic send to aspiring female fliers?

"Go for it!" Shoemaker says. "I never had this when I was younger. I didn't know any pilots. I can see more young women seeking to become pilots at an earlier age."

"There are so many women pilots out there who never took no for an answer," Grundler says. "Women can do anything; there are so many opportunities."

Ohio University's participation in the Air Race Classic continues an impressive spring for the school's fliers. The University's flight team, the "Flying Bobcats," placed 12th in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association's (NIFA) Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (SAFECON) this May. Placing ahead of schools such as Oklahoma State, Kansas State and the U.S. Naval Academy, the Flying Bobcats have appeared at the NIFA's SAFECON two years in a row.

Knowing what they know and having one race under their belts, Grundler and Shoemaker are excited about competing in next year's Air Race Classic. "The race turned out to be very competitive but so much fun," Grundler says. "The women we met were so inspirational, so helpful. I can't wait to do it again."

Adds Shoemaker, "It is so hard to put how I feel into words. But I can't wait to do it again next year!"

Joseph Hughes is a writer for University Communications and Marketing


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