Historic air race sees 100 women pilots touchdown in Oklahoma on 2600 mile journey

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! — Nope, it's 50 planes.

The typically tranquil airfield on the west end of Bartlesville, OK burst into activity on Thursday and Friday when dozens of female racers piloting single-prop aircraft descended on the tarmac for fuel, rest and a stretch of the legs.

The annual Air Race Classic, which traces its roots back to 1929, chose Bartlesville Municipal Airport as the seventh stop along a crisscrossing 2,600-mile journey over America's heartland.

"When I was in high school, I googled dangerous jobs that pay well — I chose pilot," Sarah Santos, copilot of team Prescott Whiskey Row Racers-Gold, explained how she got into flying. "I have always been an adrenaline junky."

After receiving food and fuel, (left) Co-Pilot Sarah Santos and Pilot Sophie Dubois do preflight checks before taking off from the Bartlesville airport on the next leg of the race.
After receiving food and fuel, (left) Co-Pilot Sarah Santos and Pilot Sophie Dubois do preflight checks before taking off from the Bartlesville airport on the next leg of the race.

Santos explained that the Air Race Classic is unique because historically, it's an all-female race, except this year, her two-person time has a tag along.

"I'm six months pregnant," Santos said with a laugh. "He is the only boy in the race. His name is secret, but we call him 'spicy' because that's what I keep craving."

Santos and her teammate, Sophie Dubois, pilot of the Cessna Skyhawk 172S, landed at the Bartlesville airport early Thursday afternoon, June 20, after already flying 2,000 miles. They fly for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in the intercollegiate division of the race.

Dubos discovered flying when her seventh-grade teacher, a former Navy pilot, partnered with a local Salt Lake City airport to allow students to see the earth from hundreds of feet in the air.

"I have been hooked ever since," Dubos said.

This was the first time either pilot ever visited Oklahoma, but it was a brief stay.

Pilot Bella Memeo heads back inside to check weather reports before setting off on the next leg of the race.
Pilot Bella Memeo heads back inside to check weather reports before setting off on the next leg of the race.

After topping off the tank and scarfing down hamburgers provided by volunteers, they were off to the next airport. By interpreting wind patterns and weather forecasts, Dubos and Santos felt it was advantageous to leave now.

"When you are on the ground, you talk with your teammate and strategize," Santos said. "You make the best call you can and commit."

Before hopping in their planes, they jokingly noted the forecasts were correct every time — 20% of the time.

Over the next few hours, almost a hundred pilots visited Bartlesville — some only flying by the tower for an official time, some stopping for fuel and rest, and others calling a hotel home for the night, hoping for better flying conditions in the morning.

Crews work to quickly fuel and service a racers aircraft before the next leg of the race.
Crews work to quickly fuel and service a racers aircraft before the next leg of the race.

"It's not always fun; it can be a grueling race," said Rosemary Leone, a six-time veteran who is now volunteering. "It can take about 20 hours of flying and it can get hot up there."

She noted that many of the planes don't have air conditioning, and some pilots fly with the air vents closed to get an extra edge.

The next morning, over 20 teams that stayed the night scrambled to get flying, with takeoffs almost every 30 seconds once the sun came up. The next stop was Dodge City, Kansas, then Loveland, Colorado — terminus.

"It was an honor to be an intermediate stop for the Air Race Classic and support the lady flyers," Bartlesville Airport Manager Mike Richardson said. "The airport is a great asset for the city and events like this and the annual airshow raise its visibility."

Volunteers track the status of all racers on the big screen inside the Bartlesville Municipal Airport.
Volunteers track the status of all racers on the big screen inside the Bartlesville Municipal Airport.

How the Air Race Classic works

The Air Race Classic is a yearly all-women's race for ages 17 to 90+ held around the third week of June. It's a daylight-only race in which teams of two to three fly a set route of approximately 2,500 miles.

Each year, pilots pass over nine or ten specific airports along a chosen route, but landing at each one is optional. Teams do have to land at one of the designated stops before sunset each day.

Volunteers work the tower at the Bartlesville airport by keeping official time on all the racers.
Volunteers work the tower at the Bartlesville airport by keeping official time on all the racers.

Depending on their strategy, the weather, how long their plane can fly and how many hours pilots are willing to take, they can choose to complete the race in one day or take up to four days.

Even though it's a race, it's important to note that the clock only moves while flying each leg, i.e., from airport to airport. Before the race, each team is assessed a handicap that equalizes each plane's capabilities, and the pilots race against themselves.

Team Piper Powederpuffs checks over their plane after landing at the Bartlesville airport on June 20 2024.
Team Piper Powederpuffs checks over their plane after landing at the Bartlesville airport on June 20 2024.

Whichever team has the best margin over their handicap wins the $4,000 first prize and major bragging rights.

Additional awards are handed out for stand-out first-time racers, the fastest overall between divisions and various other awards.

But perhaps the most coveted and prestigious is the Claude Glasson SOS Award, given to the team with the lowest scoring without penalties, aka the slowest team. It's affectionately referred to as the "Turtle" award.

Next year's race starts in Fairhope, Alabama, and ends in Spokane, Washington. Unfortunately, Bartlesville won't be included, and the closest stop will be in Mcpherson, Kansas, roughly 140 miles north, as the Cessna flies.

This article originally appeared on Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise: Air Race Classic bring a 100 women pilots to Oklahoma skies

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