By Phillip J. Milano
Team Snoopy and Team Red Baroness were not to be deterred by bad weather.
Detoured, yes, but deterred, no way.
The two Jacksonville University teams were able to finish the recent all-woman 2012 Air Race Classic despite foul weather that forced them to divert from the contest’s pre-ordained path and land at an airport in Ohio to wait things out.
“We sat for an hour on the ground for the weather to improve while the clock was ticking on the race,” said Juliana Vazquez of Team Snoopy, who flew a Cirrus SR-2 with co-pilot Heather Meyer. “That part was tough, but you tell yourself, ‘This is the right thing to do. It’s better to be safe than for something to happen.’ ”
The Air Race Classic is the only all-woman transcontinental air race, tracing its 83-year history to the era of Amelia Earhart. Last year’s JU team of Sarah Morris and Leah Hetzel, won the competition, beating 11 other participating collegiate teams as well as all 50 teams made up of the top female pilots in the nation. Hetzel even coached this year’s JU teams.
This year’s race, which ran from June 19-22 over more than 2,600 air miles, started in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and ended in Batavia, Ohio, with many stops in between. Katja Jourdan, 18, and Renee Brilhante, 20, of Team Red Baroness placed 33rd, while Vazquez, 24, and Meyer, 32, came in 45th among 55 teams.
“Being able to make tough decisions to remain safe is what counts, even if that means slower times and lower scores,” said Juan Merkt, director of the Davis Aviation Center at Jacksonville University. “This exemplifies the excellent safety and decision-making skills that our students acquire in our program. I am really proud of these pilots.”
By far the most exciting aspect of the exhausting race was completing it, said Vazquez, who graduated in May from JU with a degree in aviation management and flight operations and hopes to become a commercial pilot.
“There were so many airports we stopped at that it all starts blending together. You stop for gas and it’s like, where are we again?” she said. “Crossing the finish line was so cool. We knew we were done, weren’t disqualified and had made it.”
The hardest part: marking their times just after a full descent at top speed at each airport.
“You’re passing a timing line and have to look at your time and write it down. You’re trying to do that while flying at about 140 miles per hour at 200 feet above ground … not always easy,” Vazquez said.
Originally from Brazil, Vazquez said she and Meyer worked smoothly together as a team.
“We managed well for not flying together before this race, and that all goes back to the JU training. We were trying to be as safe as possible, and we made the right call (to divert),” she said.
“In the end the race just reminded me again of why I love flying. It’s just so much fun.”
Meyer agreed, telling The Florida Times-Union for a news story published before the race that “Racing is something I have always wanted to do, and I love to fly anything.
“And I have aspirations and want to do anything from aerobatics to helicopters, and anything I can do to bring awareness to female pilots is good,” she told the paper. “They can do just as well.”
Both JU teams are thankful to the following for their support: Aerosim Flight Academy for providing the two airplanes, Michael McKenny for his continued generous support, Leah Hetzel for giving her time and advice to coach the teams, and members of their “ground crew” for all their assistance during the race.