SIU Aviation’s Saluki Aces place second among Air Race Classic college teams

SIU Carbondale School of Aviation senior Maya Marenda, left, and certified flight instructor Graci McDaniel finished second in the collegiate division of the 47th Air Race Classic. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

For Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Maya Marenda and Graci McDaniel, patience was a virtue in last month’s Air Race Classic.

Faced with the prospect of flying underneath clouds during turbulent weather or waiting for better conditions, the decision by The Saluki Aces to delay their journey enabled the pair to finish second in the 22-team intercollegiate division.

Marenda, an SIU senior in aviation flight and management from Oglesby, said it was difficult to gauge the team’s performance based on the nightly scores. Completing the 2,268-nautical-mile journey was the priority. For both Marenda and McDaniel, their finish was unexpected. The Saluki Aces were one of three SIU Aviation teams competing this year.

“I had nothing to compare it to, so I didn’t know if the decisions we were making were correct or the scores they were sending us each night – was it a good thing, was it a bad thing? We were glad we made it there. That’s all that really matters,” Marenda said.

There were 48 teams this year, including those representing 14 universities.

This year’s 47th event — which began June 18 at Southern Illinois Airport and ended June 21 in Loveland, Colorado — celebrates the history of women in aviation and marked the 95th anniversary of the first transcontinental female Air Derby in 1929.

Weather played a role

The goal for each team is to beat its own predetermined times in accounting for changes in factors that include terrain, weather, winds and air space. McDaniel and Marenda ran into turbulence heading into the fourth leg in Monee, Illinois, and because weather in Iowa blocked their path to Owatonna, Minnesota, they opted to stay overnight in Monee.

McDaniel, from Pinckneyville, is a May 2023 aviation management graduate and a certified flight instructor in the program. McDaniel and then teammate Meadow Boden placed second both overall and in the collegiate division in 2023, and McDaniel said last year’s experience played a role in the decision to stay while other teams flew ahead but had to divert. Competitors are limited to a certain altitude, which made decisions involving weather more difficult, McDaniel said.

“Wanting to go when everyone else was going — that’s something that I struggled with a ton last year. And we realized that sometimes waiting, no matter how hard it is, is the best decision and that’s going to get you the best results,” McDaniel said. “This year, I was a lot more hesitant to go because everyone else was going.”

Marenda said there was the “mental back-and-forth and then realizing what’s the safest thing to do” in the decision-making process.

Growing as a pilot

The competition offered varied flying conditions and airports, which Marenda said is important.

“It was a different kind of flying than I have been used to. Having to make those real-world decisions about weather and really discussing our own personal experiences to make the best choices I think really helped me grow as a pilot and really understand those hard decisions that need to be made and not just doing what everyone else is doing and succumbing to that pressure,” she said.

McDaniel and Marenda both want to compete in future Air Race Classics.

“Strengthening the relationships that I built last year was an awesome thing, and I literally love the air race so much,” McDaniel said. “The people who run the air race are some of the people I look up to the most, and I keep in touch with them.”

Next year’s ARC is June 17-20, from Fairhope, Alabama, to Spokane, Washington.

Two other SIU Aviation teams also competed

The Tall Tails team of Heidi Hightower and Rainer FullerMoore finished 17th in the collegiate division. The Air Dawgs team of Grace Gray and Gabrielle Loeb flew four legs due to maintenance issues and later had to withdraw due to weather. They did make it to Colorado, where they were one of three teams honored with a Perseverance Award that organizers noted exemplified the spirit of the 1929 race where those competitors overcame adversity.

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