History of American Women’s Aviation Feats – Part IV – Air Race Classic

By Bonnie L Johnson

This article is the final article introducing the reader to the women’s feats in aviation. This article will introduce you to the Air Race Classic.

Women’s Cross-Country Air Race (1940s to 1970s)

With the long economic depression followed by a world war, another women’s air derby would not take place until 1947. Only two airplanes participated in that race, because of its last minute arrangements. Jacqueline Cochran originally and later corporations would step in to help sponsor the racers and offer prizes. The All Women’s Transcontinental Air Race (ATWAR) kept its pet name “Powder Puff Derby” until 1977. The Powder Puff Derby also allowed fictional characters to participate. The year Charles Schulz’s wife participated was the same year well known character, Peppermint Patty, flew with her mechanic, Snoopy.

Many local women have participated in this event over the years – Mary Aikens, Kay Alley, Lucille Cheetham, Marilyn Copeland, Colene Gordon, Laurien Griffin, Roberta Knott, Carol Le Kron, Jackie Luke Sauder, Nona Martin, Pat McEwen, Jean Noble, Charlotte Parker, Sherry Lynn Rice, Sondra Ridgeway, Wilma Sawatzky, La Veina Schnittker, Donna Lee Shirley, Penny Swope, and Janet Yoder. Mary Aikens won the 1964 and 1965 Derby with Mary Ann Noah 1970 saw the first all Kansas team in the top 10 – Marilyn Copeland and Pat McEwen placed 9th. This feat would not occur again until the 1996 Air Race Classic.

Kansas’s manufacturers also were featured in the Powder Puff Derbies with various Beech Bonanza models – A35, F35, D35, K35, V35, A36, F33, C23, C33, a Beech Debonair, and Cessna Models 120, 140, 170, 180, 172, 175, 177RG, 182, 206, 210, and 337.

Kansas has been the home to many stops for the Powder Puff Derby – Great Bend, Hutchinson, Kansas City, Liberal, Topeka and, of course, Wichita.

Many of the participants of the Powder Puff Derby came from, the now open fields of, airline captains, charter captains, former WASPs, etc. Each year the derby brought more and more women into the world of aviation and soon mothers were flying with their daughters and eventually granddaughters as part of this on going aviation event. The ATWAR organization still promotes the idea that women fly as capably as men do. Sadly, but fortunately, Marvel Crosson had been their only casualty along the air derby’s course.

Women’s Cross-Country Air Race (1980s to present)

The ATWAR was recreated into the Air Race Classic in 1978. This race is still an on-going event. The 2003 Air Race Classic will be from Pratt, Kansas to Kitty Hawk to commerate the 100th anniversary of powered flight. The 2004 Air Race Classic is tentatively, scheduled to be the first round robin. It is planned from Mid-Continent Airport with stops through out the U.S. back to Beechfield.

The Air Race Classic maintains its roots to the 1929 Derby by keeping the length approximately the same. Of course, today’s airplanes are quicker, more reliable than the airplanes of 1929. Also, weather and airport information is more readily available than it was in 1929. The ladies of the first derby did not have the sophisticated technology available for weather forecasting nor did they have the wonderfully paved runways of today with all the airport information available on flight charts.

Again many local women participated in the Air Race Classic – Janet Yoder, Marilyn Copeland, Pat McEwen, Nancy Sheldon, Karen Tucker, Alta Bush, Linda Bradley, Vicki Hunt, Julia Galstad, and Bonnie Johnson. In 1996 the all Kansas Team of Janet Yoder, Bonnie Johnson and Vicki Hunt would place 9th.

Much has improved and changed in the last 70 odd years since the first Derby race. However, the motivations are still the same – the love and thrill of flying is common to all the competitors and the winners still wish everyone could win as Louise Thaden said in her acceptance speech at 1929 Powder Puff Derby terminus in Cleveland, Ohio.