Continuing in the tradition of Amelia Earhart and 19 other women in an air race across the country in 1929, a Placerville woman is taking part in the Air Race Classic, starting June 16.
Cindy Ashmead, a nurse at Marshall Hospital in Placerville, will navigate a Beechcraft Bonanza K35, flown by Sandy St. John of Forney, Texas.
On Thursday, the pair flew out to Concord, Calif., where the race will start. At 8 a.m. on June 16, they, along with 51 other teams — each with two or three people — will take off, planes following each other every 15-30 seconds. It will be the only time the entire group of racers takes off together. From there, racers can fly sunrise to sunset, either landing at or flying by eight airports before arriving at the final destination of New Cumberland, Pa. on or before June 19.
Pilots must fly by VFR — flying by visual rather than solely relying on instruments. As such, they cannot fly through clouds. However, at least one person in each plane must have at least 500 hours flying or be rated to fly by instrument only — known as IFR.
St. John explained that the race isn’t solely based on time; handicaps are involved. The handicap follows the plane’s top speed. If, she said, a plane had a top speed of 100 knots, but flew an average of 110 knots due to tailwinds, it would be 10 over the handicap. If the next pilot flew 5 knots under, the first plane would win; if a third plane flew 20 knots over, the third plane would beat out the other two planes. This, she said, is why Ashmead’s job as navigator is extremely important: not just knowing where they are going, but finding tailwinds.
“If you climb, you lose airspeed,” St. John explained. “But if there are better tailwinds, it’s a better strategy.”
“People think I just sit there and do nothing,” Ashmead laughed.
Ashmead is also responsible for ensuring the plane is at the correct altitude for any flybys on required airports. Otherwise, they face not only penalties from the race, but an FAA violation of waivers they signed to fly at that specific altitude.
She said she has to call ahead to the airport to inform them they are close. From there, a spotter, using a stick that has pre-determined altitude ticks, visually confirms the altitude and plane number — Ashmead and St. John, team Bonanza Babes, are number 30.
Thankfully, Ashmead has had practice as a navigator — this is the second race she and St. John have flown together, after the Air Race Classic 2012. Having skipped a year, both have more experience in flying and now have better cockpit management skills. They have figured out how each other work in the cockpit. Though it’s Ashmead’s second race, it’s St. John’s fifth.
“Last time, we tried to figure out, could we work well together?” Ashmead said. “We decided we could, so we decided to do it again.” She said that the last race taught her how to plan and what to do.
“She’s competent, a good pilot,” St. John said of Ashmead, “but for race purposes, every altitude deviation means lost airspeed.” Flying, she joked, is the easy part. St. John has about 1,100 hours of flight time — about double Ashmead’s. Both have earned their commercial pilot’s license.
The Bonanza itself has a non-stock engine. After the engine blew out in the air during a previous race in 2006 — a year after St. John bought the plane — it was replaced with an engine with 10 more horsepower for a total of 260. The top speed is 172 knots — about 197 mph. The plane, St. John explained, was known as the “forked-tail doctor killer” in its early years. Many who bought the Bonanza — which features a V-shaped tail — after it first came out in 1947 were doctors with large bank accounts. The Bonanza, St. John said, is “very fast” for a plane its size. “They would get into situations, they were not properly trained … they’d damage the plane in high-speed descents.” It lead to “a lot of accidents” of planes being torn apart. The yoke of the plane, used to steer and change altitude, was dubbed the “wing-remover apparatus.”
The Bonanza Babes team faces stiff competition — sne pilot was part of the Mercury 13 astronaut corps; one piloted the “vomit comet” used to simulate zero gravity for astronauts; one, who flew last year but often judges, was a former president of the Mooney Airplane Company; another was a test pilot for the Navy. The speaker for the opening banquet flew F16s in Afghanistan in 2012. “There is a wide range of experience and backgrounds,” St. John said.
The race, other than improving the pair’s skills, has turned them into good friends. They would have to get along, St. John joked, as they have to spend between 27 and 30 hours in a 27-square-feet cabin together.
A trip outside of the race is in the planning stages, Ashmead said. “We might do a cross-country flight for fun.”
For more information on the race and to see updated race standings, visit airraceclassic.org.