Two Kansas pilots will compete in a unique competition this summer as they take turns piloting a plane in a race for four days. It's called the 2015 Air Race Classic, and it's only open to women. But until then, they’re teaching young girls about aviation. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more…
On a warm, windy morning in Derby just south of Wichita, a small group of elementary school girls and their mothers gather around a white plastic table inside a huge aircraft hangar. To their right is a white plane. A propeller the size of a hula-hoop sits motionless on the nose of the aircraft. They’re discussing a book they just read about the legendary pilot, Amelia Earhart.
Just like these girls, Amelia Earhart grew up in Kansas. One of the first female pilots in a male-dominated field, she’s remembered for her groundbreaking achievements, both in aviation and for women. And today, these girls are going to meet and fly with young women with skyward dreams just like Amelia Earhart.
Their attention is dramatically averted from the book discussion as the sound of an engine beckons them to the open end of the hangar.
Two Cessna 150’s, just like the plane inside the hangar, land on the strip of black runway and taxi outside. One has a green stripe; the other has red.
One of the pilots, 18-year-old Taylor Humphrey steps out of the red one. Tiffany Brown exits the other. At 27 years old, she was recently promoted to Director of Aviation for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Together, they are team TNT, and they are planning to compete this summer in an annual competition called the Air Race Classic. But today, their goal is to teach this group of energetic schoolgirls that women can, and should, pursue careers in aviation.
"Hi girls! First of all tell me how old are you guys?" Tiffany says.
"I'm 7 and a half," one of the girls answers.
"I'm 8," says another.
"And what grade is that?" Tiffany asks.
"Second grade!" the group responds.
"Wow! Second grade!" Tiffany says. "So, I heard that you guys read a book about Amelia Earhart? Is that right? Can you tell me a little bit about what you learned from about her from the book?"
"She changed the world by saying that girls could do what men did!" replies one of the girls.
"Very good! Well, I'll tell you what we get to do because of Amelia Earhart," Tiffany says. "So we're flying an Air race this June. It starts in Fredericksburg, Virginia."
The race follows a jagged course. It starts in Virginia and ends in Alabama. There are stops in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan and Missouri along the way.
Marolyn Wilson is the director of the Air Race Classic. Having competed in the race 25 times herself, Wilson says the first all women's air race was held in 1929 when Amelia Earhart gathered a group of women to race from California to Ohio.
“It stopped somewhere in the late 70's," Wilson says. "Six of the racers at that time decided that they weren't ready to stop racing, so they held a meeting at that last race and decided to start a new organization called the Air Race Classic. We've hit all 50 states at one point or another on our air races. It's a four-day sun up to sun down race."
Wilson says that while statistically only six percent of all pilots are women, the turn out for the Air Race Classic is never lacking.
“I think we've got an amazing number of educated, professional, exciting women who come and race this race every year from all professions" she says. "There's lawyers; there's doctors; there's grandmothers; everybody is in the air and just having fun for this race because it is fun. We have a great time.”
That’s exactly the message that Taylor Humphrey and Tiffany Brown hope to send to the book club today.
"Now Taylor and I are in a very small community," Tiffany says. "And we want it to be bigger. We want more women pilots, and we want girls like you to get interested in flying and experience it and if you like what you do today, remember that. Remember that you too can fly when you get older.
Tiffany and Taylor walk around the plane, flanked by smiling faces, eager to touch and inspect the aluminum contraption.
Tiffany points out the speedometer and throttle. She shows the group a map of the airport and talks about navigating with a compass.
After the book club, moms sign permission slips from the airfield. After that, it’s time to fly. Wearing a Hello Kitty sweatshirt and an anxious look on her face, a girl named Lilly is up first. She’s going to ride with Tiffany. Climbing into the passenger seat of the plane, she carefully listens to her instructions.
“This is my throttle, this is my gas, this is how I steer," Tiffany says. "And this is how I steer behind me. So we're just going to make sure that you don't touch any of these controls. (While) we're taxiing, taking off or landing and when we're up in the air, if you want to, you can get on the controls and we can fly a little bit okay. But I will tell you when. So go ahead and put these on. All right and this is your microphone, and that's how you're going to talk to me.
The green plane carrying Tiffany and Lilly is soon out of sight. But ten minutes later, they return, and the proud first-time-flyer bounds out of the plane.
Abigail Wilson, Reporter, to Lilly: "What was it like up there?"
"I sort of liked it and sort of didn't," Lilly says. "Because it was so high up, and I was a little nervous.
Abigail Wilson: "What was the best part?
"Let's see...when I saw my neighborhood of course!" Lilly says.
Both Tiffany and Taylor say their not focused on winning the 2015 Air Race Classic; they’re doing it for the experience and to be a part of an event that highlights and encourages female aviators.
“For both of us it’s really important to do this to promote women in aviation as much as we possibly can," Taylor says. "I think this race is really going to help with that. And us being from Kansas like Amelia was, I think it’s even better.”
"I am in a male-dominated industry," Tiffany says. "There are days where I look around and see maybe one other woman, or I’ll be the only woman in the room. I noticed that you relate to people that look like you and when women see other women flying or in the aviation industry, it makes them believe that they could do it too."
As Tiffany and Taylor prepare to fly in the 2015 Air Race Classic, they will serve as role models to these young girls in hopes that one day -- they too -- will take the controls.