CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale senior Wendy Elliott was 12 years old when she realized she wanted to follow a path blazed decades earlier by famed aviator Amelia Earhart and other female pilots.
After joining the Civil Air Patrol to follow her brother, John, Elliott, who is from Boulder, Colorado, had her first flight in a glider. With the mountains as a backdrop, she circled alongside a majestic hawk.
“That was just the moment I knew that I was going to do aviation forever,” said Elliott, an aviation management program major.
Elliott and three SIU Aviation certified flight instructors (CFI), all aviation program graduates, will compete as two teams in Cessna 172S aircraft within the collegiate division of the 2022 Air Race Classic, which starts Tuesday, June 21, in Lakeland, Florida. The three-day, 2,500-mile journey runs through June 24 and includes 10 stops in 10 states before ending in Terre Haute, Indiana. One of the stops along the route will be at Mount Vernon Outland Airport. This is the 45th year for the event.
Reporters, photographers and news crews will have opportunities to interview Air Race Classic participants when they land in Mount Vernon, although timing is difficult to predict until the four-day event starts. Event organizers say you can follow competitors at airraceclassic.org. To make arrangements to speak with SIU teams in advance, contact Ken Bro, SIU Aviation chief flight instructor, at 618-453-9247 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To make arrangements for meeting teams at Mount Vernon Outland Airport, contact Chris Collins, airport manager, at 618-315-5462 or email@example.com.
Elliott and co-pilot Vernecelyn Allen, a certified flight instructor, are the Saluki Belles. Another SIU team — the Saluki Aces — are Meadow Boden, who graduated in May 2021 in aviation management and flight and received her CFI on June 13, and Abby Lee.
More than 40 teams from across the nation, including 14 collegiate teams, are competing this year. The awards event is June 26. This is the seventh year SIU has competed. A team from SIU won both the overall and collegiate event in 2015. Boden was on a team that finished sixth overall and second among college teams a year ago in a shortened single day air derby, while Allen and Lee teamed to finish ninth overall and third among college teams.
Different race this year
Lee explained that teams will try to beat their own predetermined air speed, accounting for changes in terrain, weather, winds and airspace.
“We will come out with a game plan,” Lee said. “It’s going to be a lot of communicating back and forth between Meadow and me and trying to figure out if we do have four days to fly and flying over 2,000 miles. The weather might look good today in one area, but the next day it might not be so great. So we have to plan ahead and make sure that we are communicating with each other because we are working as a team.”
Allen noted there are various ways to increase air speed, including taking into account how the plane’s center of gravity changes based on how much fuel is in the plane and affects air speed during the flight.
Teams will be looking to find the best weather to fly in “so you get better performance to try and beat the time that you have on the handicap,” Boden said.
Elliott, a member of the Flying Salukis, finished ninth overall in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association championships in May and was the highest scoring female pilot. She is a co-captain for next year’s team. Elliott just received her commercial certificate and is expecting to learn a lot from the air race classic.
“I’ve never had to do flying where I’ve had to go for speed,” she said. “I’ve never done something where you’ve had to look at the winds and take your weight into account and everything to get the fastest speeds.”
Getting to know one another
Allen noted the experience also provides an opportunity to get to know teammates better.
“Wendy and I were familiar with each other before we joined the team together, but we’ve definitely learned a lot more about each other,” she said. “And I think over the course of the race, we will become better friends as well. Last year, I said I was excited for the challenge, and I’m excited for the challenge this year because it will be so different.”
For all of the competitors, representing a small segment of those involved in aviation is also important. Nationwide, Lee noted, about 7% of pilots are women, and the figure is smaller for those who fly commercial airplanes. The chance to meet other female aviators during the event is important.
“It’s huge,” Boden said, noting that she and Lee are roommates. “Being able to represent the 7% is amazing, and also we hope to inspire younger girls who aspire to be pilots and show them that it’s possible. Being able to go down to Florida and do this with not only another female in aviation but one of my good friends is special.”
Allen is also part of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), and at least three OBAP members will compete.
“I’m really excited about that because of being proud of women in aviation and Black women in aviation — that we have so much representation this year,” Allen said. “These are people who I’ve haven’t seen since the pandemic started, and I’m excited to get together and interact with them in the race in this way.”
Important for SIU
There are about 600 students in SIU’s aviation program which comprises aviation management, aviation flight and aviation technologies, with about 15-17% women, said Ken Bro, the program’s chief flight instructor and program coordinator. About 50 women are in the aviation flight program, he said.
“Events like this are inspiring for young girls,” he said. “It lets them see that SIU is out there, and we have some great instructors and students.”
Full circle moment
Boden had a private pilot’s certificate before enrolling at SIU and participated in the program’s Summer Wings program in 2018. She flew with Steven Goetz, an assistant professor for one hour during that program, and it was Goetz who issued Boden her CFI certificate. She is completing her application to be a certified flight instructor at SIU, and she hopes to start teaching after the Air Race Classic.
Lee, meanwhile, will start soon training with regional carrier Republic Airways after being a CFI for two years at SIU.
“It’s definitely a process, and it’s really rewarding if you get a student who is really motivated and wanting to learn and is excited to be here and wants to fly,” she said. “Seeing those ideas and concepts click and then seeing them go from the very beginning of the semester to the very end — from where they don’t know what anything in the plane means to where they are flying the plane by themselves. You are happy for them, but you are also happy for yourself because you are like, ‘I did that. ’”