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UPDATE: Liberty Belles finish fifth, 11th out of 22 collegiate teams at Air Race Classic

Liberty University’s two entries in last week’s 47th annual Air Race Classic — which traveled along a 2,610-mile flight path from Carbondale, Ill., on Tuesday to Loveland, Colo., on Friday — both placed in the upper half of the field of 22 collegiate teams.

The Liberty Belles’ No. 2 plane flown by pilot Katrina Schlenker, co-pilot Ashley Asselin, and navigator Megan Cotter, finished first on two of the nine legs of the race and second on two others and finished fifth overall. It completed the course in 20 hours, 28.6 seconds at a speed of 129.179 miles per hour, faster than its 128.525 handicap speed. Meanwhile, the Liberty Belles’ No. 1 trio of pilot Ashley Legoas, co-pilot Savannah Hughes, and navigator Moriah Langford came in second on two of the legs and completed the course in 11th place overall in 20:16:14.2. Its average speed of 127.505 was slightly slower than its handicap pace of 128.683.

Complete results are available online.

Liberty Belles launch from Illinois in 47th Air Race Classic


The pilots, co-pilots, and navigators from the two Liberty Belles teams stand between their two coaches and Cessna 172S training aircraft on June 11 before flying to Carbondale, Ill., on Thursday and Friday for the start of this week’s Air Race Classic. (Photos by Jessie Jordan)

Two planes representing the Liberty University School of Aeronautics took off from Carbondale, Ill., on Tuesday morning for the first leg of their four-day, 2,610-mile adventure in the 47th Air Race Classic. The all-female race was inspired by the Women’s Air Derby, which was founded in 1929 and featured Amelia Earhart among its competitors.

Liberty’s teams, competing as the Liberty Belles, participated in a banquet, briefings, and pre-flight inspections over the weekend before embarking on a journey that will take them to northern Michigan and across the Midwest to the race’s terminus in Loveland, Colo., on Friday. Stops along the way include La Porte, Ind.; Cadillac, Mich.; Newark, Ohio; Monee, Ill.; Owatonna, Minn.; Moberly, Mo.; Bartlesville, Okla.; Dodge City, Kan.; and Greeley, Colo., before the pilots, co-pilots, and navigators of the 49 planes in the field arrive at Northern Colorado Regional Airport, 50 miles north of Denver at an elevation of approximately 5,015 feet.

Each plane receives a handicap, and teams race against their own best time, not one another, creating a level playing field between planes of varying speeds. Teams plan their departure times and determine their flight altitudes to take advantage of the best conditions with winds in their favor to try to beat their handicap speed by the greatest margin possible.

“I’m looking forward to the competition,” said Savannah Hughes (’23), who is pursuing her B.S. in Aeronautics: Commercial/Corporate and is in her third year racing with the Liberty Belles and second year as a certified flight instructor. She served as her team’s navigator two years ago and as a pilot last summer. “Last year, my only responsibility was flying the plane. I’m in the instructor role now, in charge of the safety of the flight and keeping situational awareness. Each race, we have to deal with different types of weather, and avoid any severe weather so we can also get the best tailwinds.”

Savannah Hughes, who is competing in her third consecutive Air Race Classic representing the Liberty Belles, will launch her NOAA career in July.

Hughes will report to Connecticut in early July for 12 weeks of training to become a corps officer with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration in Florida. That was an opportunity she learned about at the start of the 2022 Air Race Classic in Lakeland, Fla., where an NOAA representative addressed the participants in a pre-race briefing.

The ARC, which involves much meteorological monitoring by the planes’ navigators and co-pilots, has prepared Hughes well for her future career. The NOAA, a U.S. regulatory agency, helps to create weather resources for the aviation industry as well as conducting geographical and oceanographical research.

“I have continued doing the Air Race Classic to build my cross-country flying experience,” she said. “We evaluate weather (using the on-board instruments and other sources on the ground) on every single leg of the race, and talk to pilots from all over the world, not just in our own little bubble (at Liberty).”

Hughes said the forecast looks favorable for the pilots’ travels along this week’s ARC flight map.

“It’s hard to tell four days out, but we are expecting normal summer weather, with superhot temperatures in the afternoons and thunderstorms developing in the evenings,” she said on Thursday. “Weather changes frequently so we have to adapt on most days. We try to get most of our flying in in the morning when the temperatures are lowest … and to avoid the thunderstorms, or we may have to divert around them.”

Ashley Legoas, a junior who graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a business degree and is now pursuing a second bachelor’s degree at Liberty, serves as pilot of the Liberty Belles’ No. 1 team, with Hughes acting as her co-pilot and sophomore Moriah Langford their navigator.

The Liberty Belles’ No. 2 team is led by junior pilot Katrina Schlenker, who was a navigator last year. Ashley Asselin, who is also a certified flight instructor, serves as co-pilot while sophomore Megan Cotter navigates from the back seat.

The two teams are coached by former Liberty Belles pilots and current certified flight instructor Chloe Cady and Olivia Lewis, a senior flight instructor working toward her M.S. in Aeronautics — Aviation Safety, with assistance from advisor Lara Allen.

When Hughes piloted a plane last summer with Lewis serving as her co-pilot, the Liberty Belles’ top team placed first in the Electronic Data Monitoring Aircraft (EDMA) category, completing the course from North Dakota to Florida in 21 hours, 26 minutes, 28.361 seconds.

This year, the two Liberty teams are competing in the collegiate division, against a field that includes three planes from both Auburn University and Southern Illinois University, two teams from Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University-Prescott, Kansas State University Poly, and Kent State University; and one each from Jacksonville University, Lewis University, Metro State University Denver, Middle Tennessee State University, Minnesota State University Mankato, University of North Dakota, and Purdue University.

Lewis and Allen flew commercially to Illinois to see the Liberty Belles off and will meet them again at the end of the route before attending the final awards banquet.

“The coaching role’s been really exciting,” Lewis said. “It is nice to see the new girls being able to participate in the Air Race Classic, too. It’s a very unique event. Safety is definitely our No. 1 priority. We’re here to spread Christ’s love and show who He is, but we’re also representatives of our flight school and our school really prioritizes safety and we do as well.”

>> Track the Liberty Belles’ progress on the Air Race Classic website.

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