UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

An experience of a lifetime

Air Race Classic sees UND’s team and the University itself climb high

2023 Air Race Classic
Members of UND’s Frozen Force Air Race Classic team celebrate the end of the four-day race in Homestead, Fla. From the left are pilot Grace Heron, copilot Sadie Blace, ground coordinator Ashley Almquist and navigator Tracy Mitchell. Photo courtesy UND Aerospace.

Sadie Blace, the copilot on UND’s Frozen Force Air Race Classic team, remembers visiting UND before deciding where she would attend college.

“My tour guide had been on UND’s ARC race team,” said the sophomore from Mankato, Minn. “She told me if I came here, I should interview and apply to be on the team. That’s what I did, and here I am. It’s super cool how everything has come full circle.”

2023 Air Race Classic
Antonia Wagener

For the first time in its 46-year history, the famed all-women air race started at the Grand Forks International Airport. It was hosted by the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. UND’s Frozen Force team was one of 42 aircraft that took off the morning of Tuesday, June 20, and landed at the Homestead, Fla., airport on the afternoon of Friday, June 23.

“The most important takeaway from our race this year is that the team successfully and safely completed the 2,333-nautical-mile trek in the four days allotted while inspiring pilots and soon-to-be pilots,” said Beth Bjerke, aviation professor and associate dean, who co-chaired the race start event with Liz Mislan, a UND aviation graduate and former ARC racer.

Other members of UND’s team were pilot Grace Heron, a senior from Tampa, Fla.; navigator Tracy Mitchell, a sophomore from Billings, Mont.; and ground coordinator Ashley Almquist, a freshman from Bay Village, Ohio. The team was coached by Antonia Wagener, assistant chief flight instructor.

Encouraging words

Blace said all members of the team are very competitive, but they also enjoyed being on a team, working toward completing the same mission. But an important secondary mission was the outreach to encourage girls and young women to get involved in the aviation field.

“A few years ago, the number of females in UND’s aviation program were around 9% and now it’s pushing 25%,” she said. “A lot more women are getting interested in the field.”

Wagener praised the team for the way in which it represented UND while flying a safe, clean and complete race

“They exhibited grace and resilience in overcoming many obstacles, mainly the weather,” she explained. “They encountered headwinds, fog, low ceilings, extreme heat and thunderstorms. That’s tough stuff for a race that needs to be conducted in visual conditions during daylight hours only.”

In addition, Bjerke said UND’s team was instrumental in being one of the first teams to compete in the ARC’s new Electronic Data Monitoring Aircraft (EDMA) division.

2023 Air Race Classic
More than 40 aircraft and about 100 Air Race Classic team members prepare to take off from UND’s aviation facilities at the Grand Forks International Airport. It was the first time in the event’s 46-year history that the race started in Grand Forks. Photo courtesy of UND Aerospace.

“This new division is truly historic, and will help safely bring the Air Race Classic into the future by using aircraft flight data to track results and aircraft engine performance,” she noted. “This will give racers the ability to fly a much safer and cleaner race in the future. The ARC board kept this new division small this year with just five teams competing, but expects it to grow steadily in the future.”

Paving the way

Participating in the race and being involved in the development of the EDMA division provides valuable experience to young aviators, according to Wagener.

“As an aviator, it is important to say ‘yes’ to any opportunity presented and to have new experiences,” she explained. “It could be flying a different airplane, flying into challenging weather, navigating mountainous terrain, flying into complicated or unfamiliar airspace or testing out personal limits.

“The Air Race Classic tends to offer many of these opportunities,” Wagener continued. “It’s an experience that is sure to be a highlight of an aviatrix’s career, no matter what they accomplish in the future.”

As an opportunity for personal and professional development, Wagener said that each year, she sees UND’s team members show growth, newfound confidence and increased maturity after completing the four-day race.

“In fact, Sunday night at the terminus banquet in Florida, we were reminiscing about who these four women were as pilots when they took off on June 20 versus who they are as pilots that day,” she said. ”It’s definitely a noteworthy experience and something each teammate should be proud to have on their resume.”

Welcome to North Dakota

Another of Bjerke’s goals in hosting the race start was to have the approximately 100 race-team members from around the country receive a positive North Dakota, Grand Forks and UND experience. Based on the comments of those who took part in the events leading up to the start, it was a rousing success.

“Everyone’s been so welcoming, and it’s really cool to see how proud you all are of your downtown,” said April Heppner, a pilot from one of Auburn University’s three ARC teams. “We got a very impressive tour of UND’s aviation facilities. There’s a lot of very cool things on campus.”

2023 Air Race Classic
Meeting up in downtown Grand Forks during one of the opening events before the Air Race Classic start are members of Auburn University’s three teams and the Southern Illinois University team. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Ashley Baldwin, another Auburn team member participating in her second ARC, said, “I wasn’t expecting everyone to be so nice in North Dakota. Everyone has just been so welcoming and kind.

“People come up to us and ask us if we need help – probably because we look like we’re lost all the time,” she laughed.

Auburn copilot Sophie Young said, “I’ve been taking pictures everywhere we go. Every single room we went into (at UND Aerospace), I was pulling out my camera and saying, ‘I’ve got to take a picture of this and bring it back to Auburn.’

“I looked at all the impressive equipment, all these impressive simulators and all these classes UND students have,” she added. “I’m thinking about all the learning opportunities the students have here, and I want to bring them back to our students.”

Graci McDaniel, pilot on the Southern Illinois University team in Carbondale, said, “I loved touring the Aerospace school; it was awesome. And I’m definitely taking notes for next year because we’ll be hosting the start of the air race.”

It’s been amazing

Linda Evans from Philadelphia, a member of the Keystone Fliers team, said, “It’s been amazing. The volunteers have been awesome. The event has been well organized.

“I’m just completely impressed with the University of North Dakota,” she added. “The program here is really unbelievable. I had no idea that it was so extensive with such wide variety of options for students to study.”

Despite the contrast in ages and experience between the competing teams, Laura Doherty, a pilot from Connecticut with the Star Wings team, said, “Everybody in the room is a female pilot, which is something you don’t get to see very often. After reading the book ‘Fly Girls’ I decided to fly in the ARC.”

One unlikely team, The Magpies, proved to be a perfect match. Colby Helppie-Schmieder, an 11-year Air Force pilot, wanted to fly the ARC while half-way through her pregnancy.

“I was very determined to race this year because after having a baby, it’s difficult to make the time,” she explained.

She and her teammate, Willie Mattocks from Buffalo, N.Y., had only met online before joining up in Grand Forks, days before the race’s start.

“I knew that Colby was having a little one, but she didn’t know that I was a midwife,” Mattocks said. “It worked out pretty good. We’re in quite a unique situation, really. There have been a few pregnant ladies who’ve done the race, but I think we’re the first team with a midwife.”

2023 Air Race Classic
Marie Carastros, a 94-year-old pilot from Montgomery, Ala., greets the competition during a welcome event at the Gorecki Alumni Center. She flew with her daughter and granddaughter in her 19th Air Race Classic. Photo courtesy UND Aerospace.

Opening more doors

On the top end of the ARC experience scale was pilot Marie Carastro, 94, from Montgomery, Ala. She was part of The Flying Carastros team, which included her daughter Susan Carastro and granddaughter Danielle Carastro – all pilots.

Marie flew in the 1960 Powder Puff Derby, a transcontinental race that was the forerunner to the ARC. Last week, she flew in her 19th ARC with three generations of Carastros.

Marie became interested in flying around World War II, but found few opportunities open to women in the aviation industry.

“I tried the airlines, and they said I could be a stewardess,” she remembered.

Eventually, she found her way in through the Civil Air Patrol, an official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. During her 50-year stint in the CAP, she met her husband, an Air Force instructor pilot, who taught both her children to fly.

“I have a very warm spot in my heart for the Civil Air Patrol,” Marie noted.

One of the biggest changes she’s seen during her time in aviation is more opportunities for women.

“I just think they’re very fortunate that there are many doors open to them that weren’t open at my time,” Marie concluded.