By Zoe Francis
CONCORD -- Melody Lynn Dowlearn will soon tackle a cross-country race, but she's not worried about being pulled over by the cops.
The Danville college student will be high above the nation's roadways as she and her teammate race in a small plane from Concord to the East Coast in the world's only cross-country flying race for women.
"This race is an amazing opportunity," Dowlearn said."There are going to be a lot of really great learning opportunities with the experience of flying across country, (such as) the weather we're going to encounter and flying into unfamiliar areas. Since I hope to be doing commercial aviation some day, this is leading right into that path for me."
Dowlearn is one of 150 female pilots on 50 teams who will take off Monday from Buchanan Field to tackle the cross-country challenge. She and her Liberty Belles II teammate, Alicia Isacson, will fly a single-engine Piper Arrow owned by Liberty University School of Aeronautics in Virginia. Isacson just graduated from there while Dowlearn will earn her aeronautics degree in December.
"The university is sponsoring two teams to go," Dowlearn said, explaining that she had to apply to be on a race team and then try out on a flight simulator.
The Air Race Classic is not just the only cross-country air race for women, it's the only cross-country air race that exists.
"In today's reality of races, yes, we have the Reno Air Races, which are very exciting, but that's a closed loop," said Dianne Cole, director of the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots. "This is really the only cross-country race that endures. It's unique because it's for women only. There is no other race that I'm aware of that is cross-country except for ARC. It is really special and unique."
The three-day race covers more than 2,300 nautical miles and has eight designated airports pilots must fly by for timing checks. Each leg is 280 to 320 miles. New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, is the ninth and final stop.
The race dates back to 1929, when it was called the Powder Puff Derby, and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart was among the first racers. The race originally started in Oakland, where Earhart was based.
The name changed to Air Race Classic in the late 1970s because "it's kind of hard to be taken seriously when you say you're a powder puff pilot," Dianna Stanger, assistant director of the Oklahoma City-based ARC, said with a laugh. "We have a lot of the racers who raced in the old derby who are still racing today. A lot of our racers have done it 25 times or more."
The Concord-to-Pennsylvania route is going back to the race's roots, when it was a coast-to-coast challenge, Cole noted.
"This is the first time in many, many years it is truly transcontinental," said Cole, a Pinole pilot who's organizing the race's start out of Concord. "It starts on the West Coast and ends on the East Coast. A lot of times, they'd fly a big loop in the Midwest."
Pilots must fly in teams for safety reasons and so the ARC can continue to get insurance for the race, which has a perfect safety record, Stanger said. Pilots and their planes are handicapped so faster planes don't have an advantage.
"We're all on a level playing field because we've all been individually timed by a race official," said Stanger, a Houston-based pilot who won the race two years ago. "You can cross the finish line first and still lose the race." The 50 teams will gather at Concord's Buchanan Field Airport early on Monday for a staggered launch.
"It's really a phenomenal view to see so many different planes that are taking off within two hours of each other," Stanger said. "Because it's a race, people naturally pick the one they want to win. You can track us online to see if they picked the right one."
Dowlearn, who had her first solo flight at age 16 and got her pilot's license a year later, is making her first cross-country flight this week to get her team plane to the West Coast. Her entire family will show up for the thrilling start of the race.
"Oh, man, I'm excited about all of it," Dowlearn said. "I'm looking forward to the flight across the country and encountering all the new places. I am looking forward to meeting all of these other women. It's not often that you run into other women pilots. Since we are a minority in aviation, it will be neat to meet with these women, learn how they got into aviation and learn from them."
The Air Race Classic starts at 8:30 a.m. Monday in Concord at Buchanan Field Airport, 550 Sally Ride Drive, at the Concord Jet Center. Spectators are welcome. There is a fenced area for watching planes take off. The area has bleachers, picnic tables and a sound system to hear announcers. It will take about 2.5 hours for all 50 teams to launch. Free.
For details, or to track the flights, visit airraceclassic.org.