Transcript Staff Writer

Although they didn't finish first -- in fact, they finished last, in 31st place -- area pilots Margie Richison and Carolyn Smith did get the opportunity to see whole lot of the United States and make the case for women in aviation.

Richison, of Norman, and Smith, of Yukon, were part of the Ninety Nine's annual Air Race Classic. The pair left Oklahoma June 15 for El Paso, Texas, in their single-engine Piper Warrior II. From there it was on to Mesa, Ariz., for the actual start of the 32-plane race; final destination, Menominee, Minn.

As two of only three Oklahomans in the race -- Oklahoma City resident Heidi LaPine flew with Minnesota pilot Karen Redman; LaPine and Redman finished 18th -- Richison and Smith said they participated purely for the fun and the chance to inspire other women to fly.

"Flying is almost euphoric," Smith said just before she left, "but one of our main goals was to educate girls about the field."

And, to spend a little time in the pool.

In e-mails sent during the race, Smith said she and Richison were "in the first batch to arrive in Arizona for a pre-race inspection." After the inspection, the ladies relaxed, spent the evening swimming and waited for the race to begin.

On opening day, everything went pretty smoothly; well, mostly.

While the start of the race was uneventful, the ladies did have a little trouble -- once -- staying on course.

"They (local residents) had given us precise instructions for going through El Paso air space," Richison said. "They told us to go to the red-and-white striped tower and turn west but keep to the north of the river. I heard a plane ahead of us wander into Mexican air space and I said 'that won't happen to me.'"

Richison spoke too soon.

Before long, she, too, heard her radio crackle and a controller tell her to turn left and change headings -- she'd just entered Mexican air space.

"Now, I grew up on a river and so did Carolyn," she said. "And we know what a river is supposed to look like. This dry gulch which they call the Rio Grande didn't even look like a river to us."

After correcting their course, they continued, seeking fame, fortune and food, all while facing thunderstorms in Kansas.

"We had to wait out a thunderstorm at Iola, Kansas. We couldn't go on to Lawrence so we had to spend about an hour on the ground."

That hour, she said, cost them the race.

"That storm delay killed our time. We knew after that, our chance of winning wasn't good."

Still, they continued, eventually reaching Minnesota and the end of their cross country flight; but making friends in the process. "Everywhere we went, we felt like queens for a day. It speaks so well for women in aviation."

And after the lunches and tours, they had one final weekend to wind down and await the results of their cross-country trek.

This past Sunday Richison and Smith learned they had pretty much wrapped up the tail end of the competition.

However, they didn't go away empty handed.

For their 31st place finish, they earned $100 and the SOS Claude Gasson Award for the last place team.

Of course there's always next year.

"Oh we're gonna race again," Richison said. "We didn't have the best time, but we did have the most fun."

Next year, they'll start much closer to home. In 2007, Oklahoma City's Wiley Post Airport will host the Air Race Classic. The race, part of the state's centennial celebration, will run from Oklahoma City to New Brunswick, Canada.

M. Scott Carter 366-3545 scarter@normantranscript.com

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