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Liberty Belles flight teams soar to third, fifth in Air Race Classic

June 24, 2014 : Liberty University News Service

Members of the Liberty Belles third- and fifth-place flight teams at the Air Race Classic.
Liberty Belles team members (from left) Melody Dowlearn, Alicia Isacson, Jessica Dyer, and Megan Grupp with their third-place trophies, medallions, and plaques on Saturday.

It was a whirlwind week and the adventure of a lifetime for the four female pilots and navigators who represented Liberty University School of Aeronautics (SOA) in last week’s 38th annual Air Race Classic.

The team of Melody Dowlearn and Alicia Isacson placed third out of the 47 teams that started the 2,691-mile race Monday morning in Concord, Calif., touching down at the terminus in New Cumberland, Pa., on Wednesday afternoon. The pair also placed second out of 13 entries in the collegiate competition and won the Fastest Piper award out of the six low-wing aircraft in the field.

“Going into it, I was just hoping we would do well,” said Dowlearn, who will graduate from Liberty’s SOA in December. “As it turned out, we did phenomenally well. I was proud to represent Liberty flying across the United States.”

Dowlearn and Isacson, who graduated in May, actually finished behind the Liberty Belles’ tandem of SOA graduates and certified flight instructors Jessica Dyer, the team’s coach, and Megan Grupp, the SOA Pilot of the Year. Dyer — who flew on a team that placed ninth overall and won the Fastest Piper award last year — and Grupp took fifth overall and third among collegiate teams due to a handicap system that factored in engine speed.

“I am extremely proud of these young ladies, of the professionalism they exhibited and the manner in which they represented Liberty University,” said Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dave Young, dean of the Liberty University School of Aeronautics. “We are blessed to have outstanding students in the School of Aeronautics of which they are prime representatives.”

Dowlearn and Isacson won $2,000 and medallions for finishing third overall. They also each received a plaque and a $40 prize for placing second in the collegiate category, as well as a trophy for being the Fastest Piper, which they plan to display in the SOA’s academic building. Dyer and Grupp won $950 and medallions for placing fifth overall, and each earned $30 and a plaque for being the third-fastest collegiate team.

A rainbow is visible along the Teton Range in Wyoming on the first day of the Air Race Classic.
A rainbow is visible from Dowlearn's and Isacson's Piper Arrow as they pass the Teton Range in Wyoming.

The top-five finishes for the Liberty Belles tandems were unprecedented. This is the third year the team has entered two planes in the historic race, modeled after the 1929 Women’s Air Derby that featured 19 female aviators, including Amelia Earhart.

“Overall, it was an incredible experience,” said Dowlearn, who alternated between the role of pilot and navigator each day. “(Dyer and Grupp) prepared us really well. They had flown the race before and they were able to help us out and inform us as to what to expect.”

“We had a lot of meetings and did a lot of prep work before the race,” Dyer added. “We picked them because we knew they could make decisions under pressure and with a heavy workload. We paired them up and put them in the simulator and put a lot of stress on them to see how they responded. They worked really well together.”

Both Liberty Belles teams made a critical choice to fly four legs of the race on the first day, separating them from 15 planes that opted to stop after the first two stages and wound up stranded by an overnight ice storm in Elko, Nev.

“Both of our teams had to make this go or no-go decision and both of our teams decided to leave,” Dowlearn said. “Many, many teams got stuck in Nevada (so) it was a really good decision to move on to Pinedale, Wyo.”

Liberty Belles dispatcher Ariana Knight kept the teams up-to-date on weather forecasts and helped advise them on their flight plans, plotting routes to steer clear of developing storms.

“Our girls saw that there was weather coming in, so they pushed themselves,” Knight said, noting that the airport had already put away its de-icing equipment for the summer. “It was abnormal for them to get snow and ice in mid-June.”

Mount Shasta, a 14,000-feet peak in California, stands out on the first day of the Air Race Classic.
The 14,000-foot snow-covered Mount Shasta provided a magnificent milestone on the first day in California.

Two of Dowlearn’s favorite views came on that first day, flying past snow-capped Mount Shasta in California, which was magnificent at more than 14,000 feet tall, and alongside the Teton Range in Wyoming, where they received a sign from God that He was watching over them.

“Flying into Wyoming, we broke out over the clouds near the 12,000-foot (Tetons) and there was a rainbow greeting us into Pinedale, Wyo.,” Dowlearn said. “It was really beautiful.”

Both Liberty teams flew from just after sunrise to near sunset each day, spending the first night in Wyoming and the second in Iowa City, Iowa, before arriving in Pennsylvania on the third day.

“They were really exhausted by the end of it, but they flew a really solid race,” Knight said. “Sometimes, they would go straight from one leg to the next. Sometimes, they would stop and wait for the winds to get better. They didn’t always have clear skies, and it was really tough to make the right decisions, but both teams made them and were able to pull ahead.”

The 15 planes stranded in Nevada did not complete the course by Friday’s deadline, and one was disqualified for landing at an airport not on the designated route to avoid flying into a storm.

Liberty Belles at Freedom Jet Center before leaving for the Air Race Classic.
Isacson (left) and Dowlearn will look to improve on their third-place finish next year while Grupp (center) takes the coaching reins from Dyer (on wing). Ariana Knight (right) served as the Liberty Belles' dispatcher for a second year.

Dowlearn said the experience of flying from near her hometown in California, where her whole family sent her off, to Pennsylvania was invaluable.

At Saturday’s awards banquet, the two teams were joined by Knight, a few members of her ground crew, and Nathan Edwards, a Liberty flight instructor who has worked with all four of the aviators. 

Next year’s route will start in Fredericksburg, Va., and fly over Lynchburg en route to Winston-Salem, N.C., on the first leg. It will continue through parts of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia before finishing in Mobile, Ala.

“The course will be kind of a star shape, so it’ll be interesting because the planes will almost do a 180-(degree turn) on every leg,” Dyer said. “It’s going to take a lot of calculating to get the best score. Being from the East Coast, we will know the terrains better and how the winds move.”

Dyer plans to pick the Liberty Belles’ junior flight tandem to complement Dowlearn and Isacson this fall before relinquishing coaching duties to Grupp next spring.