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Cross-country air race builds aviation interest for new female fliers

From left, Emma Kishel, Jenna Annable and Dana Atkins pose for a portrait in front the the plane they took across the country. They decided to name the plane Rhonda. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Emma Kishel, center laughs with Jenna Annabl as they walk off the runway on Tuesday June 27, 2017. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
From left, Emma Kishel, Jenna Annabl and Dana Atkins pose for a portrait in front the the plane they took across the country. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

Summer road trips are fine and well, but you haven't lived until you've raced across most of America in a light aircraft.

A team of UND students finished doing that just last week as they wrapped an award-winning finish in the 2,400-mile Air Race Classic 2017. The event is organized for female pilots and has deep roots in U.S. women's aviation and a racing community that once counted Amelia Earhart among its members. With that in mind, at least one UND aviation leader is hoping the team's accomplishments can encourage more young women to pursue pilot training.

The UND crew consisted of Dana Atkins, Emma Kishel and Jenna Annable in the air, with Dakotah Osborn on the ground providing weather forecasting support. The first two are veterans of the race, having completed it last year. The team was coached by Erin Schoenrock, a UND lead flight instructor, and it's now the fifth local crew to have completed the race.

For a four-day trek that zig-zagged over 14 states from Maryland to New Mexico, Atkins said the team's approach involved a lot of "hurry up and wait" tactics as they rose before the sun to observe the weather, looking for their opening with the help of Osborn's remote support.

Storms and air currents provided the biggest strategic impetus for the crew.

"There were a lot more weather challenges, and some severe weather, like thunderstorms, and of course we wanted to wait for the best winds," Atkins said.

Some days, Kishel said, the team would get up, fly a few hours, then touch down for several more to wait for better conditions. The structure of the Air Race allows for teams to exercise that leeway in their timing while navigating the route.

Rather than awarding the very first team to cross the finish line, racers are instead judged using a handicap set in regard to the speeds they're capable of flying. Strategic layovers and all, the UND team placed third in the collegiate division and eighth overall in a field of 51 planes.

For first-time racer Annable, the event featured a much stronger sense of camaraderie among the competing aviatrixes than she'd initially expected.

"I thought everybody was going to be like, 'I don't want to talk to you, you're the enemy,' " she said. "But going into it, everybody was so nice, it felt like going to a family reunion."

Kishel described it as a "community within the competition," and while the women are quick to point out that they raced to win, the friendly nature of the circuit was appreciated.

Elizabeth Bjerke, a professor and associate dean in the UND Department of Aviation, said this year's race attracted pilots ranging in age from 18 to 88. The wide breadth of experiences in the air provided an opportunity for mentorship as well as a clearer picture of women in the aviation industry, Bjerke said, an area that's been traditionally associated with men.

With that in mind, she focused this year on documenting the travels of the UND team on social media with the hopes of reaching a younger crowd with an interest in aviation. Bjerke said that push netted more than 40,000 views on Facebook. A deeper dive into the website's tracking showed about 4,500 of those viewers were teenage girls.

The race is considered an intensive experience for young pilots to log plenty of flight hours in a short period of time. But Bjerke also sees it as a student recruitment tool. The number of female students among the incoming freshmen has increased over the time that UND has been fielding teams for the race, with this next year showing the most promising growth. The female segment of incoming new freshmen expected to enter UND's aviation program this fall now stands at about 15 percent, a rise of about 5 percent from its historic average.

Bjerke said the flight team actually met one of those expected students at a stop in Iowa, a chance encounter that she took as a good sign.

"We've always just scratched our heads asking how do we get that number up, and I think you're looking at that," she said. "You showcase, highlight some role models for young females who say, 'If they can do it, I can do it.' "

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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