Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Women of Reno Air Racing

Last month, we talked about Women in Aviation and I shared with you some of my mentors along my path. This month, I’d like to share with you a little about the women who have raced at Reno.

No Surprise - Formula One has had the second highest number of women racers

Since there is really no definitive source on all of this, I’m relying on the facts I have been able to gather through RARA and through conversations with other racers. If any of this is incorrect, I apologize – and contact me with the correct information.

Through the years

The numbers are not remarkable, Over the 47 years of Air Racing at Reno – 24 women have raced. The Biplanes take the lead with 9 women; Formula 1 has had 7; Sport Class has had 2; T6 had 3; Jets have had 2 and Unlimited – just one. Several others have attended PRS and have been listed as racers, but have not actually put up a qualifying time or completed a race.

The first woman to race at Reno was Connie Marsh in the Biplane Class. Connie started in 1969. She was about 90 lbs soaking wet with dimes in her pockets and the Biplane Class decided her size was a benefit for her. They required her to be weighed and decided to add ballast to her aircraft to make up for her diminutive size.

Another Biplane Racer at the time was also under the 150 lbs arbitrary number the Biplane Class chose. He told me about going into town and getting as many silver dollars as he could and he wore a heavy leather jacket with many pockets to hide the coins he used so he didn’t need to add ballast to his own aircraft.

Her first year, Connie flew Lowers Special – a Smith Mini Plane. This model is rarely competitive in the Biplane Class and all of the angst was for nothing, really. The next year, she returned with the Hill Mong and was more competitive. But, she broke the barrier and slowly but surely – women started to become Air Racers.

In 1970, Connie was joined by Joan Alford. Joan flew in the F1 Class in Pogo for two years. In 1971, Joan was joined by Judy Wagner flying the Wagner Solution. She became the first woman to win a Formula One race – actually any race at Reno. Judy raced the Solution from 1971 until 1981. This plane was renamed Judy and has returned to Reno with new owner Holbrook Maslen.

Colene Giglio was the first woman to race in the T-6 Class starting in 1974. T-6's raced at Cleveland in the late '40s in the Halle Trophy Races with all women pilots. Colene raced until 1977 and last I heard she was running a Flight School at Long Beach Airport.

Erin Rheinschild is the sole Unlimited Racer. She raced from 1990 – 1992 in Miss Fit. She won the Bronze in 1990. Then in 1992, she qualified, and her husband Bill ended up racing the airplane. I’ve always wanted to meet Erin. I understand she was highly respected by the “brethren”. Bill continues to race but Erin has not returned. Bill owned the Sea Fury named Bad Attitude and still owns Risky Business, a beautiful P-51 Mustang.

Lori Love raced the in the F1 Class from 1983 to 1995. The Scholl Special was owned by Chuck Wentworth. She showed up her first year with an all female crew. She later raced Flying Dutchman for Tommy Aslett. From what I’ve been told, she was highly respected as a pilot and enjoyed her years racing. She moved on to other flying adventures after her racing days concluded. In 2007, her plane was lost while flying over Western Africa.

In 1985, Patti (Nelson) Johnson joined the races. She flew Spring Fever and then Miss USA in Formula 1. Adding the Biplane Class to her resume in 1992 – she flew Full Tilt Boogie, winning the Biplane Gold in 1993, 1995 and 1996. She was a member of the U.S. Aerobatic team in 1980-82, winning one gold, three silver and two bronze medals. She was also Women’s National Aerobatic champion in 1982.

Over the years, Biplanes have attracted the most women racers

In 1987, Peggy Penketh decided to race in the Biplane Class. Her husband at the time, Mike Penketh, had been racing for a few years and had recently built a new racer. His old racer was her way into the game. She flew for three years in Biplane #4 (same number I have now) called Passion Pitts. Peggy is now married to long time racer Tom Dwelle and can usually be found in the Dwelle Pit Area.

In 1987, Katharine Gray joined the Formula Class in Pogo – the same aircraft Joan Alford raced in the early 70’s. In 1994, Katharine moved over to Geronimo, a GR-7 designed by Robbie Grove.

Also in 1987, Linda Finch joined the T-6 Class. She raced until 1992. In 1997, Linda participated in a recreation of the final Amelia Earhart Flight in a 1935 Lockheed Electra 10E. Wisely, Linda’s Electra was outfitted with a GPS and was modified to carry 1800 gallons of fuel, compared to Earhart’s estimated 800 gallons. It took her 10 weeks to make this trip.

Madelaine Kennedy flew in the F1 Class from 1990-1994, in Video Cassutt (cute play on words) and later Fandango. I believe she still owns her Cassutt.

Bonnie Warner may be a name you will remember from the Winter Olympics. She competed in the Luge and Bobsled. After the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Bonny received a $10,000 scholarship and decided to earn her pilot’s license. She added the Reno Air Races to her resume with the coaxing of fellow racer Randy Howell. She flew only one year.

Lynn Getchell raced one year, 1994, in Okie Twister. She was the wife of popular warbird pilot Ellsworth Getchell who owns one of the remaining Bristol Centaurus powered Sea Furys.

Mary Dilda joined the T-6 Class in 1996. She and her then husband, Steve,shared flying duties for Two of Hearts for years until she won the coin toss and he bought Felix. She first one the Gold in 1997 in Mystical Power. Later she won again in 2005. She also raced in the Jet Class from 2002 – 2004 – winning the Gold in 2003. Mary is the only woman to have won Gold in two different classes at Reno. Jackie Warda raced Biplane from 2002 – 2004; leaving to fly airshows.

Vicki Cruse and I attended PRS together in 2003. Vicki raced her Glasair intermittently between 2003-2006. When she wasn’t racing at Reno, she was preparing to fly at the National Aerobatic Championships to complete her other goal of being the USA’s National Aerobatic Champion. She accomplished this in 2007 and was killed in 2009 at the World Aerobatic Championships. Before her untimely death, she was being touted as a front runner for Steve Fossett’s LSR Driver. She was a racer and a competitor all the way.

In 2006, Leah Sommers, Erica Hoagland and Amber Applegate were all Rookies in the Biplane Class. Due to a paperwork issue, Amber was unable to compete that year, Leah and Erica finished in the Bronze. Later Leah would come back and I believe will race again in the future. Erica left the Biplane Class and moved to the Formula 1 Class in 2008. She was unfortunately lost during a training flight that year. Casey Erickson joined the Biplane Class in 2008.

In 2010, both Heather Penney, daughter of John Penney – and Vicky Benzing attended PRS. Heather raced in the Jet Class and Vicky raced in the Sport class in Vicki Cruse’s Glasair as a tribute to her late friend.

That’s it, in a nutshell - the 24 women who have raced at the Reno Air Races since the beginning. I can only hope this is just the beginning and women will do more for the sport in the future.

Until next time .. Fly low, Fly Fast and Turn Left,
Marilyn Dash
Ruby Red Racing

**Thanks again to Tim Adams Photography for the use of his incredibly photos.**