The Purdue Air Race Classic Team takes to the skies

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Women aviators from the United States compete this week in the 45th annual Air Race Classic, an all-women’s daylight-only race in which racing teams fly a set course to a list of pre-determined airports. During the race, teams consisting of at least two female pilots fly VFR — visual flight rules, which generally means the pilot must be able to physically see where he’s flying — and make low-altitude flybys at set times the race course. Each team must complete the course in four days or less, and competitors must land at an official race stop before sunset each day.

This year’s 115 participants include a team from the School of Aviation and Transportation Technology at Purdue University Polytechnic Institute, consisting of two pilots supported by a student ground crew team who will help them stay on course, avoid weather problems and the to comply with VFR requirements. Comprised of seniors and one recent graduate, the Purdue Air Race Classic team competes against experienced teams ranging in age from 17 to 93 years old.

Charity Weke, captain and one of two pilots on the Purdue Air Race Classic team, graduated from Purdue University's professional flying program in May 2022.  (Photo by Purdue University/John O'Malley)charity week

Charity Weeke (BS Professional Flight ’22) came to Purdue from a community college where she was the only woman in the entire flight school.

“The Air Race Classic Club was the first club I saw when I came to Purdue,” said Weke.

For Weke, preparing for the race presented many challenges, including discussions with the school administration, coordinating with the Air Race Classic itself and learning which airspaces along the course to avoid.

“Working with everyone made it easier,” said Weke. “It’s a community thing.”

Alex Small, a senior in commercial aviation and cybersecurity at Purdue University, is one of two pilots who fly for Purdue's Air Race Classic team.  (Photo by Purdue University/John O'Malley)Alex Klein

After reading Fly Girls, a book about the history of the Air Race Classic, Alex Small learned about Purdue’s Air Race Classic Club. Now, as she prepares to compete in the race she read about, Small looks forward to the people she will meet.

“There are so many amazing and inspiring women flying in this race,” said Small, a flight instructor with dual majors in commercial aviation and cybersecurity. “What I look forward to most is meeting everyone who is passionate about the same things and has had the experiences I hope to someday have.”

For Small, the race offers another new experience: flying in a multi-crew environment alongside Weeke.

“For our entire club, this has brought us closer together and taught us the importance of teamwork,” Small said. “This is a fast-paced, high-stress environment.”

Ankita Patra, a senior professional pilot at Purdue University, serves as the ground crew coordinator for the Air Race Classic team.  (Photo by Purdue University/John O'Malley)Ankita Patra

On her first flight as a student in Purdue, the flight instructor told her about Ankita Patra from the Air Race Classic Club.

“We had a small group and it was fun planning the stages of the race and making friends,” said Patra, a flight and airline management and operations student.

Patra and the rest of the ground crew have spent the last two semesters practicing how to plan the stages of the race, taking wind and other weather conditions into account. During the race, they advise pilots Weke and Small on their route and altitude so they reach the timing points safely and within race rules.

“None of us have any experience of this race, so it will be the first time for everything,” said Patra. “We’re a little nervous, but we’re still happy.”

Weke and Small will fly one of Purdue’s single-engine Piper Archer aircraft in the race. A newer aircraft in Purdue’s fleet, the Piper Archer features detailed displays with precise information to help these pilots fly their best race.

“We’re really ready to let it go fast!” said Klein.

Weke, Small and Patra all agree that their main goal for the race is to finish with a minimum of penalties. And thanks to flight tracking software, these Purdue aviators will bring their racing experiences back to university for additional learning opportunities that will help future competitors.

“We want to use this experience to help the club in the future,” said Klein.

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