For the first time in its history, the 43rd Annual Air Race Classic (ARC) made stops in Canada, including North Bay’s Jack Garland Airport.
The all-women cross-country airplane race is comprised of 41 teams for a total of 109 racers, executing high-speed flybys during a four-day, 2,538-mile course from Jackson, Tennessee, to Welland Ontario, including stops in Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay.
The only Canadian team to enter the race was Ottawa’s Susan Begg who piloted her Mooney aircraft, and teammate Asti Livingston from Niagara on the Lake, responsible for weather navigation.
“The challenges never seem to end. They just keep coming, but that is part of aviation,” laughed Livingston who has 15 years flying experience.
She tells the story of seeing the makings of a tornado as they were flying north of Kansas.
“I looked at the radar screen and there was activity starting to form around the west side. It was far away, but with weather you never know. I was keeping an eye on the movement,” said Livingston.
“I was concerned because nobody was taking off around the same time, it was kind of staggered. So, I just made sure that everybody knew, when I found out that there was a tornado forming. I relayed that information, and people were surprised that we were sharing information about weather to other racers. I said, ‘why wouldn’t I?’ We’re all sisters. A race is a race but when it comes down to it, safety is first.”
As one of the more experienced teams, the pair didn’t hesitate to offer assistance when asked.
“A lot of them have never flown into Canada, have never been to Canada, so the fact we’re the only Canadians, we became protective in a way. A lot of them are younger girls and still learning. The older ones that flew commercial, they’re not used to flying to Canada in this type of race. So, we were very happy to answer questions. I was actually shocked to hear them say ‘you guys are so nice.’ We’re Canadian,” laughed Asti.
Begg who has been flying since the 70’s called the race an “experience of a lifetime.”
Her advice to the younger pilots is to learn as much as they can from the experienced racers and to always fly safe.
“I’ve learned even more about my plane because we race against our own handicap speed which has been predetermined and normally you don’t fly aircraft at full power, you’re just eating a lot of gas. You might get there faster but it is a different ball game,” said Begg who was then asked if she would do it all again.
“I might. It was something I always wanted to do, and now I’ve done it so maybe it is time to move on. This has been fun. The memories will last forever, and we’ve made good friends.”
Livingston encourages more females to consider going into aviation.
“You’d have to work hard, study and be good at math and sciences, but mostly you have to have tenacity and the courage to keep going. For girls I would say if you have a passion for aviation and that’s what you want to do, go for it and don’t let anything stop you. There is a lot more support systems out there than you would ever believe.”
One of the youngest racing teams at 19 and 20 years of age are from Colorado.
Rebecca Carroll, Madison Siegrist, and Rachael Northup are flying a Cessna 172 RG (retractable gear).
“It’s a real trooper. We call her brown sugar and she’s just killing it, rocking the game,” laughed the twenty-year-old Siegrist who has two years flying experience.
“The flight has been so incredible. It is just amazing. Everything has been so beautiful. This is my first time travelling internationally so it has been super cool, and every single place we’ve gone has been new to me,” said Siegrist.
“This provides such a great challenge not only as a pilot, but as a teammate. There has been a lot of learning experiences for us so far, a huge learning curve. I’m always interested in learning new things and becoming a better pilot.”
The race has exceeded all expectations for teammate Rebecca Carroll.
“I came expecting greatness, but I was definitely greeted with excellence. I’ve made so many great new friends. Just seeing the country from a general aviation aspect is really neat. I’ve never flown out of the country and I’ve never flown with two other pilots like this. We’re all putting our lives in each other’s hands. We have to learn to trust each other. We are at different levels in our flying, so we had to figure out who is comfortable with doing what and how we work through that.”
At age 19 Rachael Northup is the youngest member of the team and quite possibly the youngest competitor in the entire race.
“The biggest lesson that I’ve learned about myself is really that we’re able to coordinate as a team. I’m really good at briefing procedures ahead of time especially when it comes to the fly-bys. Those are really critical to stay ahead of the airplane to make sure we’re tracking straight towards the airport, and I’ve just learned that I can really think ahead well and brief my team on what to expect,” said Northup.
“It is so different then when you’re flying by yourself. I’ve been flying by myself for the last couple months and managing that workload with two other people in the plane is very different. It has surpassed our expectations. This is something that is going to be remembered for the rest of our lives. “
All three said they would definitely race again.
‘It actually goes through my hometown next year so I would absolutely love to participate,” said Siegrist
Pilots Melanie Slayton, Shelli Huether and Victoria Findley are all from Nashville.
“The winds were definitely a challenge. What went well was our teamwork. Vicki was the flight captain and she was the PIC (pilot in command) coming in here and Melody was the navigator so she kept us right on track and told us when timing turns were and all that other stuff and I made radio calls and it was really fun,” said Huether.
“There has been Lots of wind, lots of weather, and Wednesday was even more challenging when we were flying north from Missouri on the way to Minnesota. But overall, we just can’t believe how unbelievably beautiful it is here.”
The team is flying a 1998 Cessna Skyhawk 172 owned by Findley who has only had the plane for about a year and a half. She earned her private pilot’s licence just over two years ago.
“We’ve kind of been rotating who is going to be left seat and just shifting priorities and responsibilities so we can continue working as a team.”
This past week they have been averaging 5 to 6 hours a day in the air.
“There’s a lot more time we’ve spent having to wait out the weather, hanging around the airport waiting for a break in the weather. But recently we started seeing clear weather and it has been much better.”
Findley says it is her first competitive trip and definitely the longest.
“I have a tendency to stick close to home and not venture far out. This has been such an incredible learning and growing experience. This has definitely helped me grow far beyond what I had done previously,” said Findley.
“I’ve learned to have a little more confidence in myself. I’ve really learned the true value of having a team. There is no way we could have gotten through the weather and all the challenges we faced if we weren’t a team. Two years ago, I never would have thought I would ever do this, and I did. And there are so many other girls out there and they all can do it too. They just need to believe in themselves.”
Bill Carswell was the North Bay Stop Chair, in charge of coordinating the activities.
Grant Bailey was the timing chair coordinating the volunteers to each cover a three-hour shift stretching from sun rise to sun set.
“We offered to help because we’re part of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, COPA a national organization to promote general aviation,” said Carswell.
“The racers have had some weather challenges on Tuesday. They actually had to cancel the first two legs of the flight and fly directly to the third airport on the route. It was a good decision. It was down near the Gulf of Mexico,” explained Carswell.
Their flight times are recorded and sent to the race headquarters.
“They fly past a timing line and we note the time when they fly past, and if they’re going to land, then they circle around, land and refuel or stay the night. When they’re ready to take off, they fly past the timing line and that starts the clock again.”
Steps are taken to ensure an even playing field for all competitors.
“They try and equalize it all by applying a handicap to the slower airplanes to make it competitive. The slowest airplane can win depending on how they flight plan and manage the winds. They may delay takeoff if there is a stronger tailwind later on. That may give them the advantage to win. The other possibility is people don’t stop for fuel or to stay overnight, they just fly past and we get a time and then they proceed on to the next airport.”
Between 35 and 40 teams spent Thursday night in North Bay, more than organizers anticipated.
Everyone must land by nightfall.