The skies over Mesquite were quite full Friday morning, Nov. 10, as the Rio Colorado Chapter of the Ninety-Nines began a two-day, 600-mile race that took them through three states and ended at Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Sixteen airplanes, most piloted by women, participated in the race taking off at short intervals.
The racing event is a fundraiser for the Ninety-Nines scholarship fund for young women and men wanting a career in aviation. The Ninety-Nines is an international organization of licensed women pilots that Amelia Earhart began in 1929. Of the 117 licensed women pilots during the time of the organization’s founding, 99 became charter members and took the name from their number. The membership was international from the beginning and Earhart was elected the first president. There are now thousands of licensed women pilots from more than 40 countries who belong to the Ninety-Nines.
Shannon Hicks Hankins, vice-chair of the Rio Colorado Chapter, said the racers would hit seven airports in Nevada, California and Arizona. “Last year is the first time we came through Mesquite as part of the annual event,” Hicks Hankins said. “Mesquite was so warm and welcoming, and the airport was wonderful. It’s a beautiful location to fly into. We thought it would be a great place to start our race so we set it up for this year. We’re having a great time.”
Hicks Hankins said seven of the 16 teams are women pilot and co-pilot. Two are husband and wife teams although the wife does most of the flying. “And then the rest are boy teams,” she said.
Pilot Marge Thayer is the oldest participant in the race at 75 years. A resident of Mesa, Arizona, she’s been flying since 1969. “Air racing for women is like a family reunion,” Thayer said. She has won the biggest Ninety-Nines Air Race Classic four times and is in the top five female air racers for the most wins. “It took me 35 years to do that. It’s tough,” she said. She flies a Cessna 182 RG (retractable gear).
While Thayer is the main pilot in her aircraft, her right-seater is Helen Beulen with Beulen’s daughter Tiva Devitt going along for the ride. “We have three generations of women in our plane,” Thayer said. “I drive and Helen points.”
The planes in the race are four-seat, single-engine, and are limited to less than 600 horsepower. Because of the different engine configurations and capabilities of each plane, all the teams are handicapped according to their airplane’s speed. “We fly a handicap route to see how fast each plane can go. That establishes the handicap,” Hicks Hankins said. “For instance, my handicap speed is 146. So, in the race I want to fly faster than the 146. To do that, you have to fly perfect cross-country, in straight lines, and try to find a good tailwind. You’re not only flying against the other pilots, but you’re racing against yourself.”