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Liberty Belles to champion women in aviation at annual Air Race Classic

The Liberty Belles will compete in next week’s Air Race Classic. Pilots are (from left): Audrey Rabe, Keegan Starkey, Allie Grubb, and Katie Wagner; not pictured: Jodi Yoder. (Photo by Kaitlyn Becker Johnson)

Five female aviation students and graduate instructors from Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics will help show the world next week that there is no glass ceiling — indeed, the sky is the limit — for women in a profession still dominated by men.

Continuing a tradition that dates back to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby — in which Amelia Earhart was one of 20 solo pilots — and the 1947-77 All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, two Liberty Belles teams will fly Cessna 172 Skyhawks in next week’s 41st annual Air Race Classic.

“I see participating in the Air Race Classic as another way to prove that women and girls can do anything they put their minds to,” said Allie Grubb, a rising senior who will join returning pilot Katie Wagner on one of Liberty’s teams.

Currently, female pilots make up approximately 6 percent of the aviation industry, a statistic that the race and other organizations have strived to increase.

“I actually come from a family that has more women aviators than men,” said Melody Kaijala, a third-generation female aviator who represented the Liberty Belles as a pilot in two previous Air Race Classics and is one of the team’s two coaches this year. “My grandfather was a pilot, aircraft mechanic, and FAA inspector, and my grandmother was a private pilot in the 1950s before my mother served as a flight instructor in the 1970s. I am inspired by the challenges that they overcame in an industry where women pilots were almost unheard of.”

Since receiving her private pilot certificate, Keegan Starkey, who graduated in May, has joined two organizations committed to opening opportunities for females around the world to fly: the Women in Aviation International chapter in DeMotte, Ind., where she has served as a public relations representative and president, and The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots that promotes advancement of aviation though education, scholarships, and mutual support. Earhart served as The Ninety-Nines’ first president in 1929.

“As I have developed my love for aviation, I have become extremely involved in advocating for more women to join the industry,” Starkey said.

The two Liberty Belles teams flew out of Lynchburg to the race’s starting point in Frederick, Md., on Thursday morning. Starting Tuesday at 8 a.m., the 54 planes will take off one after another, 30 seconds apart, on a four-day race course that will take them over 14 states and to eight designated airstrips in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas before reaching the terminus in Santa Fe, N.M. (Follow the teams’ progress on the Air Race Classic website and look for updated photos and posts on the Liberty Belles’ Facebook page.)

“It is a high-stress environment because there are a lot of planes,” said Wagner, who placed 10th in last summer’s race. “It’s a different kind of flying than flying in a training environment. It’s more of a real-world experience.”

Pilots are given the freedom to chart their course — plotting around storms and factoring wind speed and direction into their flight plans to know when to take off from the eight designated airports. All planes must be visible, so they cannot fly at night or through clouds.

“Normally, you want to get the best tailwinds that you can; however, this year, going East to West, we’re going into the wind, and into the heat out West, so that will make it challenging,” Kaijala said. “Everyone’s going to have a harder race, so it’s an even playing field in that sense. It’s really coming down to strategy this year, how to get the best speed with headwinds.”

Throughout the race, Liberty’s pilots will maintain communication with Kaijala and fellow coach Lizzy Jore back in Lynchburg, Va., and rotate responsibilities.

“Everyone’s collaborating, making calls,” said Audrey Rabe, a rising senior and teammate of Starkey and Liberty flight instructor Jodi Yoder. “While the person in the left seat is flying, the person in the right seat’s working the radios, and the person in the back is looking for traffic and terrain. We’re all working together to try to make the best decisions.”

Teams must arrive at Santa Fe Municipal Airport by Friday at 5 p.m., but the first to finish is not automatically the winner. Each plane is assigned a handicap speed and the team that maintains the highest ground speed above its designated handicap speed will be deemed champions.

The Liberty Belles are two of the 14 collegiate teams represented in this year’s event, which also includes pilots from six foreign countries — Cyprus, England, France, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.

Earlier this month, members of the Liberty Belles participated in another event that brings attention to women in the field of aviation. On June 3, Yoder, Wagner, Kaijala, and Jore piloted planes in the Women Can Fly event hosted by Liberty at Lynchburg Regional Airport. The event offered 80 complimentary flights to girls and women of all ages while showcasing Liberty’s aeronautics program.


2017 Air Race Classic designated airports on the route

Total distance: 2,647 miles

Frederick Municipal Airport, Frederick, Md. (Starting point)

Richard Downing Airport, Coshocton, Ohio

Holmes County Airport (fly-by only), Millersburg, Ohio

Indianapolis Regional Airport, Indianapolis, Ind.

Decorah Municipal Airport, Decorah, Iowa

Bemidji Regional Airport, Bemidji, Minn.

Spencer Municipal Airport, Spencer, Iowa

Abilene Municipal Airport, Abilene, Kansas

Ardmore Downtown Executive Airport, Ardmore, Okla.

Hale County Airport, Plainview, Texas

Sandia Airpark Estates East Airport (final fly-by), Edgewood, N.M.

Santa Fe Municipal Airport, Santa Fe, N.M.

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