NORMAN — Barely a decade after the passage of the 19th Amendment, 20 women pilots blazed a trail for female aviation by competing in the First Women’s Air Derby, flying from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland, OH in 1929.
Today, the tradition of an all-women’s cross country air race lives on in the Air Race Classic, Inc., and the University of Oklahoma College of Continuing Education and Department of Aviation’s Flying Sooners are proud to send their third consecutive duo to represent female aviators at OU.
For teammates Robin Torres and Keenyn Duncan, the race is very much a personal challenge with personal rewards.
“This race spans many generations, and it was amazing for me to meet the older women pilots and see what they have to say about things and what they did then as opposed to now,” Torres said.
“Some of the competitors are in their 80s and 90s, and they competed in the old races,” said Assistant Chief Flight Instructor and ARC Advisor Julie Orrick.
An FAA certified flight instructor and 2012 OU graduate holding a bachelor’s degree in aviation, Torres’ first ARC flight was in 2011 with fellow newcomer Jen Scanlan, and this year she’ll return with ARC newcomer Duncan.
Duncan, a U.S. Air Force active duty veteran who served as an E-3 AWACS airborne mission specialist communications systems operator, is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Aviation at OU.
“I’m excited for the experience. When I was looking into this race, I saw it’s a very popular women’s aviation event and I want to learn more about how to use the environment to get better speed,” Duncan said.
Torres and Duncan will have four days (June 18-21) to complete the 2,400 statute mile course starting in Pasco, Wash., and ending in Fayetteville, Ark., with night flying prohibited.
Alongside evolving social climate and aircraft, today’s ARC has graduated from largely speed-based competition and such gender-conscious names as the “Powder Puff Derby”, to a more complex scoring system pitting contestant’s navigational and judgment skills against their aircrafts’ respective capacities.
“The goal is to exceed the average speed of your aircraft,” Torres said. “What they’re looking for in this race’s scoring is the speed your aircraft should get versus the speed you actually got — the more you exceed average speed the better your score.”
Exceeding handicap speed, therefore, depends not just on an aircraft’s engines but on precise planning — from anticipating weather and prime altitudes to determining how much fuel and drinking water will affect weight/speed of the plane.
“There are a lot of factors to play with to shoot for the best cross-country flight,” Torres said. “It’s all about planning.”
Physical endurance will also play a part, as the cockpit temperature of Torres’ and Duncan’s Piper Warrior will average 105 degrees during flight.
In the 2011 ARC, Torres and her fellow pilot placed 11th out of 43, the highest placing team with two ARC novices. Though winning the race itself is always the driving force, beating her own score is Torres’ primary goal.
“I definitely want to beat 11th place,” Torres said. “There will be about 10 to 15 collegiate teams out of 50 entrants, and it’s a hot ticket item to get into this race.”
In spite of the high level of planning and preparation ARC participation demands, the historic and social implications of ARC are not lost on Torres or Duncan.
“I think flying with these older women pilots, we can take advantage of everything they’ve learned and everything they’ve had to overcome,” Torres said. “When you talk to women who flew 60 plus years ago, they really broke down barriers for us. It’s just nice to meet women pilots, period - women comprise 15 percent of aviation industry, if that.”
Though Torres said the climate at OU is very welcoming to its female aviators, her interaction with pilots on other collegiate ARC teams indicated that some women pilots — even today — encounter much difficulty pursuing their dream to fly and participate in ARC.
“I appreciate the culture here at OU, women don’t have any problems,” Duncan said. “With my other aviation experience, it depended on who was in charge, but in the military, as a woman you definitely have to learn to be more headstrong. It’s never been bad, but you see that girls who are very quiet when they start in aviation get more confident dealing with guys.”
Increasing confidence, comfortability and visibility for women pilots is ultimately what ARC participation seeks to encapsulate.
“The past participants have said that it’s a huge self esteem boost to be able to go out there and fly across the U.S., it helps with their independence,” Orrick said.
“For me, the gain is to be part of history in this race and promote women in aviation since there aren’t very many right now,” Duncan said.
“I like the fact that it promotes OU aviation - we can compete with bigger collegiate programs based on the east or west coast and show that we have the same program right here in most people’s backyards,” Torres said.
To help sponsor Torres and Duncan’s participation in ARC, contact Julie Orrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-7277. For more information on ARC, visit www.airraceclassic.org.