While most students were taking beach bags to the pool, a group of women from Minnesota State were taking to the skies to compete in the Air Race Classic (ARC).
Considered the “epicenter of women’s air racing,” the four-day race includes pilots ranging in age from 17 to 94. It started in Grand Forks, ND and ended in Homestead, Fla. With approximately nine checkpoints in 12 states, over 2,333 nautical miles were covered.
Senior Sami Naples heard about the ARC from one of her friends who’s an aviation major at the University of North Dakota who participated last year.
“She said, ‘Do you guys have a team?’ and we said ‘No, but that’d be kind of cool.’ We found out there was a team seven years ago and it never happened again,” Naples said. “We’ve made it a team and we want to keep continuing to do it.”
Naples was the pilot while teammate Grace Ackerman was a co-pilot along with senior Madi Luebke as the navigator. They took turns rotating positions to “keep their minds fresh” while teammate Ella Jones was the ground coordinator who would send them texts about the weather and help them book hotels.
Their days started at 4 a.m. and ended around 9 p.m.
“We’d wake up, find what food we could at the hotel and then volunteers would pick us up and take us to the airport since a lot of the checkpoints were in small towns with no Ubers or taxis,” Naples said. “We were allowed to take off as soon as the sun rose.”
Despite flying all day, they said communication was key for determining whether or not fuel was needed or if the weather was safe.
“Each stop was different. It was like ‘Do we keep going or are the winds getting better this way?’ It was trying to figure out the next move and if it wasn’t safe, we’d get a hotel,” Naples said.
The team had to stop at certain checkpoints along the way where they would perform flybys 1,000 feet above the ground. The timer would start or stop to track where the pilots were at. However, it was a race to get to checkpoints on time.
“It would depend on each spot, but usually we had to cross the diamond line by 8:30 p.m. otherwise, we would’ve been disqualified from the race,” Luebke said.
Besides meeting times for checkpoints, there were other rules the girls had to follow such as flying during the day, avoiding clouds and signing an overnight list to let the judges know where they were at.
“We had to follow visual flight rules which meant weaving around clouds or dropping to a lower altitude and then we had to abide by federal aviation regulations,” Naples said.
The team placed fifth in the electronic data monitoring category. A special panel tells the pilots how often they reach a revenue passenger mile (RPM) to not ruin the engines.
“We all had different airplanes with different leg speeds. We were basically racing against our own capabilities of our airplane,” Naples said.
Naples said she was able to apply the knowledge and skills she learned at MSU.
“In flight school, you learn how to deal with all these different scenarios. You never get the chance to actually be in that scenario and how are you going to handle it. With Air Race, you’re kind of on your own. They just let you go, say ‘have fun and be safe’ and let you figure it out,” Naples said.
The connections made with other teams and travel were Luebke’s favorite parts of the ARC.
“I think just traveling across the country with your best friend; no one else is going to be able to have that experience,” Luebke said. “I’ve never seen girls supporting girls like that. It’s crazy how much support and love there was throughout the whole thing.”
Naples said women should join the aviation program to build connections with others.
“I went to Atlanta and I was sitting at the gate and saw this one girl wearing an Auburn aviation sweatshirt and thought she looked oddly familiar. I go over to her and she goes, ‘Sami! We met at the Air Race,’” Naples said. “We all keep helping each other out and it’s a great community to be part of once you’re in it.”
Header photo: Grace Ackerman (from left to right), Ella Jones, Sami Naples and Madi Luebke flew over 2,300 miles across the country as a part of the Air Race Classic, an all-women flying competition for four days in June. (Lilly Anderson/The Reporter)
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