Women With Wings

Rockwell Collins supports the 2017 Air Race Classic, where women of all ages, backgrounds and professions continue the tradition of women's air racing

It began in the 1920s and was considered the first real race for female pilots. During the Women’s Air Derby, twenty women raced from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland, Ohio. To qualify, pilots needed at least 100 hours of solo flight, including a minimum 25 hours of cross-country flying – the same rules that applied to men competing in air races at the time.

Fast forward to today and the race has evolved into the Air Race Classic, which has become the epicenter of women’s air racing. Pilots range in age from 17 to nearly 90 years old and come from a variety of backgrounds including students, teachers, doctors, airline pilots, business owners, professionals and air traffic controllers.

To compete, teams fly during the day in Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions in a multi-leg, four-day transcontinental sprint across the United States. Competitors fly a variety of airplane types, with each aircraft assigned its own unique handicap. Race officials compute the handicaps by having the planes fly a box pattern at maximum speed without excess weight and calculating their best time. The team that beats its handicap by the largest margin during the four-day race is the winner.

The 2017 race started in Frederick, Md., and ended in Santa Fe, N.M., covering 14 states and 2,648 miles.

This year, 13 colleges and universities are fielding teams in the collegiate category, including the University of North Dakota (UND), which received a $5,000 sponsorship from Rockwell Collins. Joel Siegel, a Flight Operations team lead at Rockwell Collins and UND alumni, brought the event to the company’s attention and has been working the race for the last three years.

“A former professor asked me if I was interested in helping forecast for the UND team and I was thrilled to help out,” said Siegel. “I’m proud to be an alumnus of the UND Atmospheric Sciences program and I thought it was a great opportunity to support women in aviation.”

Siegel turned to Rockwell Collins’ University Relations team, which agreed. Initially, the company provided promotional items and some equipment but this year it contributed monetary support for the team.

“So many women who are interested in aviation don’t continue because of a lack of funding and flight training time,” said Elise Loan, University Relations liaison for Rockwell Collins. “We’re really excited about supporting the Air Race Classic because of the opportunities it provides for women in aviation. In addition, aviation is typically a very male-dominated field so this is an incredible chance for us to shine a light on what women aviators are doing today.”

Rockwell Collins’ support goes well beyond its monetary contribution. Siegel works with his former professor and a team of six other current UND students to form the meteorology team for the UND racers.

And weather is a key factor in how the teams do. “We work with our team to strategize about how the weather will impact their flight – should we hold out for better conditions or look for more favorable winds?” said Siegel.

Siegel cites an example of just how important this collaboration can be. “Last year, a pressure system was moving through and winds were going to be changing significantly overnight,” he explains. “We kept pushing the team to take one extra leg that day, even though they were tired. We knew if they waited until the following morning for takeoff, they would be facing a headwind and it would slow them down.”

The advice paid off, with the team finishing in the top 10 in 2016.

This year’s UND team – Pilot Emma Kishel, Co-Pilot Dana Atkins and Navigator Jenna Annable, supported by Ground Coordinator Dakotah Osborn – clearly understand the value of participating. “It’s incredible to be able to race with so many women who are passionate about aviation and to learn from everyone we interact with,” said Atkins.

And the women are all appreciative of the Rockwell Collins support. “To have the backing of a company that’s so well known in aviation really means a lot to us as women pilots,” notes Annable. “Rockwell Collins has been amazing. It’s nice knowing there are companies who not only say ‘women in aviation is great’ but they really mean it. Rockwell Collins is supportive not just of us in the race, but even in our lives and future careers.”

Final update: The UND team placed 3rd in the collegiate category and 8th overall in the 2017 Air Race Classic, which ended at 5:00 PM Santa Fe N.M. time on June 23.


Story posted: June 26, 2017

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