WMU News

WMU aviators compete in women's national air race

June 15, 2005

KALAMAZOO--Two Western Michigan University women will head south next week for the start of the 2005 Air Race Classic, a women's cross-country event that will take competitors through the middle of the nation on a round-robin journey that begins and ends at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind.

Erica Ebenhoeh, a December 2004 graduate of WMU's College of Aviation, will share piloting duties with Sarah Tower, a WMU flight instructor and a June 2003 graduate of the University's aviation flight science program, for the June 21-24 race that has attracted women aviators from across the nation since the days of Amelia Earhart.

Tower, who is from Brighton, Mich., is a veteran of the 2004 WMU entry in the annual race. She was part of a team that finished in 10th place overall and captured second place in the race's collegiate division. For Tower, the race is about seeing old friends and trying to beat both new competitors and her own team's successful performance last year. For Ebenhoeh, whose hometown is New Lothrop, Mich., this year's event represents a first opportunity at tackling the demands of a cross-country race.

"I'm really excited both about the experience of flying in a competitive situation and getting to know the older women and hearing their stories about aviation history," says Ebenhoeh.

This is the sixth time a WMU team has competed in the high-profile race, which is billed as "the only all-woman, cross-country event." The WMU team will fly the same single-engine Cessna 172 that last year's team used so successfully. The plane is the model routinely used by the college for flight training. The move will allow the team to avoid the hefty handicaps placed on more sophisticated aircraft used by WMU teams during earlier races.

Leaving the Purdue airfield at 30-second intervals, competitors will fly at differing air speeds, but at similar altitudes as they race along this year's 2,436-nautical-mile course. Their trip will include stops in Winona, Minn.; Beatrice, Neb.; Bartlesville, Okla.; Shreveport, La.; Walnut Ridge, Ark.; Tullahoma, Tenn.; and Athens, Ohio. The course will take competitors through a variety of flight conditions that includes heavily controlled air space near Dayton, Ohio, and Little Rock, Ark., as well as travel over the rapidly rising terrain of the Ozarks.

A total of 42 teams, including six from 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. Two-person teams from around the nation compete in the event. University teams compete for the overall event title as well as for a separate collegiate trophy offered as part of the competition.

"There will be more collegiate flyers this year, which will make it very interesting," says Tower. "There's a huge age gap, with teams made up of very young pilots like us and older ladies who have the most amazing stories to share. In the evenings, it's all about getting to know people and sharing stories, but during the day, it's all about competition. It's still friendly, but fierce as well."

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.

Last year, the WMU team used just two and one-half days of the four days allotted for the race. Tower says this year's goals are to fly a safe race and to improve on last year's performance.

The WMU team has been preparing for the race by practicing the low-altitude fly-bys they'll need to complete at official race checkpoints. In May, they did a trial run of the course and took photos of the airport approaches so they can plan their strategy to accommodate weather and cloud conditions.

The race concludes with a June 26 awards gala at Purdue that will feature NASA astronaut Dr. Janice Voss as the speaker.

Ebenhoeh is a 2000 graduate of New Lothrop (Mich.) High School and the daughter of Marc and Robbin Ebenhoeh. Tower is a 2000 graduate of Hartland High School and the daughter of Tom and Lori Tower of Brighton, Mich.

A map of the race route and additional information can be found at <www.airraceclassic2005.org>. Ebenhoeh and Tower expect to file daily reports on their progress, which will be published online in WMU News.

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

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