Between the dust storms, thunderstorms, mountains, turbulence and cows, Winlock native Amanda Suter will never forget flying in last week’s Air Race Classic.
The 22-year-old senior at Florida’s Jacksonville University didn’t place in the four-day, 2,128-mile race from Pasco, Wash., to Fayetteville, Ark., but the experience made her a better pilot, she said Tuesday.
“I feel like I could do whatever I needed to in almost any situation by myself,” said Suter, a licensed pilot and U.S. Naval officer-in-training who aspires to be an air ambulance pilot one day.
On June 18, Suter and her college classmate/co-pilot Katja Jourdan took off in a borrowed Cirrus SR20 to fly through a series of eight checkpoints across the U.S. They were one of 47 teams in the all-female-pilot event, in which competitors try to beat their own best speed by the biggest margin (based on a timed handicap flight) in the plane of their choice. However, because most pilots encountered headwinds the whole journey, Suter said, only two teams ended the race with positive overall scores.
Pilots were allowed to fly as many legs of the race each day as they want, but only during daylight hours, and they had to adhere to visual flight rules (they couldn’t fly into the clouds).
“The whole race in general is such a good idea to get women together,” said Suter, who logged about 50 flight hours during the event. “It’s amazing. Some of these ladies were 70 years old. ... I thought that was pretty cool.”
Jourdan, who flew the first two days, and Suter, who flew the third and fourth days, hit their first snag after flying the first leg of the trip to Mayfield, Idaho. As they debated whether to attempt the second leg that day to Logan, Utah, a 50 mph dust storm barrelled down on them.
“You could see it coming from miles away,” Suter said, who navigated on an iPad when she wasn’t at the controls. “If we didn’t tie our plane down, it probably would have taken it with it.”
The women bunked down in Idaho for the night but made up for lost time by flying four legs the next day. Traveling through the mountains was the biggest challenge for them because they had to stay beneath the clouds while avoiding the rugged terrain and catching the best winds. For several legs of the race, the team flew only 500 feet high — low enough to point out cows on the ground by their color, Suter said.
They also flew hundreds of miles through rough turbulence generated by heat rising from the ground.
“Everyone was getting beat up in their planes, especially flying at full power,” Suter said. “It was the most entertaining day.”
The weather also proved challenging on their trip west from Florida to the race start in Washington. Extreme thunderstorms forced them to land in Butte, Mont., because “that stuff will knock your plane right out of the sky,” she said. The next day, the clouds were so low that they weren’t sure how they’d fly out. They ended up following the ribbon of highway from 500 feet up for three hours, threading their small plane between the mountains.
“After that one, I said I can do anything in this airplane if I need to,” Suter said. “Crossing the Rockies was a little more difficult than we thought, but we did it twice.”
Although Jourdan plans to fly the Air Race Classic again next year, Suter can’t participate because she starts Naval flight school in May.
“I’ve got the rest of my life to do it again, so hopefully I’m going to do it again — in my own airplane,” she said.