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Off they went, into the wild blue yonder!

UND’s Frozen Force Air Race Classic team takes off for race to Florida

2023 Air Race Classic
Members of UND’s Frozen Force team prepare to take off from the Grand Forks International Airport on Tuesday morning as the 2023 Air Race Classic got underway. Hosted by the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, it was the first time the event began in Grand Forks. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Forty airplanes carrying 40 all-women teams took off from Grand Forks International Airport this morning, each intent on winning the 46th annual Air Race Classic when it concludes on Friday in Homestead, Fla.

It was the first time UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences hosted the ARC takeoff, which included a series of special events for participants over the weekend and days leading up to the race’s start, launched on Tuesday from UND’s aviation facilities at the Grand Forks airport.

“Everything went very smoothly,” said Lara Gaerte, ARC president, who was in Grand Forks for the takeoff. “It was a great start with great hosts. It was well put together – they thought of everything.”

It was mission accomplished for Beth Bjerke, aviation professor and associate dean of UND Aerospace, who co-chaired the event with Liz Mislan, a UND graduate and former ARC racer.

“Our whole goal was to welcome the racers to Grand Forks, N.D., and give them that experience,” Bjerke said. “Every single event we held was unique. I can’t say enough about our committee that put all these great events together.”

The progress of the ARC and UND’s team can be monitored live through this website.

The 46th Annual Air Classic Race covers a 2,400-mile-long flight route from Grand Forks, N.D., to Homestead, Fla..

In it to win it

The events at UND and throughout greater Grand Forks demonstrated that the 2,684-mile race is far more than a competition requiring strategy, tactics and every bit of aviation knowledge the pilots and their crews possess to complete it.

“Everybody wants to win,” Gaerte emphasized. “You don’t do this without that in the back of your mind. It’s not so much for the prize money because it hardly pays for your race. It’s because you’re successful doing the event, which is a big deal.”

It’s also about networking to discover new opportunities in the aviation field. It’s about mentoring the next generation of women aviators. It’s about exploring new ways to measure aircraft performance and race results. It’s about teamwork. And it’s about maintaining the tradition and history of an event tracing its roots back to the 1920s when women began making inroads in the male-dominated aviation field.

2023 Air Race Classic
UND team pilot Grace Heron readies her plane for takeoff. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

“Being able to do this opens the eyes of a lot of younger girls to let them know aviation is an accessible place with a lot of opportunities,” said Grace Heron, a senior from Tampa, Fla., and the pilot of UND’s Frozen Force race team.

“I like to focus on outreach because I love flying airplanes, growing as a person and as a pilot,” she explained. “It only takes one person to inspire someone younger to say, ‘This field of work is for me.’”

Showcasing UND

Bob Kraus, UND dean of aerospace, noted that it was an important opportunity to open the University campus and aviation facilities to those who hadn’t seen them before.

“It’s a great way to showcase everything that UND is able to do, but even more so, to highlight how important it is to show women and people of diverse backgrounds that this is a possible career for them,” he said.

UND is also one of four collegiate teams in the race testing the concept of measuring aircraft speed and performance using electronic flight data, automatically recorded in the aircraft’s onboard memory card. When UND last raced in 2022, it was alone in a non-competition category, strictly to collect data.

2023 UND Air Race Classic team
UND Frozen Force 2023 Air Race Classic team members from the left are: ground coordinator Ashley Almquist, pilot Grace Heron; Antonia Wagener, team coach and assistant chief flight instructor; copilot Sadie Blace; and navigator Tracy Mitchell. Photo by Arjun Jagada/UND Aerospace.

“This year, we’ll be pushing our aircraft while exploring new territory in this new class of the flight data monitoring,” said Sadie Blace, the sophomore copilot on the team. “We can compete in this category. So that’s super exciting.”

For the tenth year since UND began competing in the ARC, its team is once again being supported by a group of atmospheric science students to provide all-important forecasts and weather information from sun-up to sundown. Fred Remer, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, said there are 22 graduate and undergraduate students involved.

“This is real-world experience for students and it’s hands-on,” he said. “They learn all sorts of theory in the classroom, but when you actually have to make a forecast that somebody depends on, then it puts a whole different perspective on it.

A winning forecast

“We provide UND’s team with basic flight planning information and strategies to succeed,” Remer continued. “It’s a handicap race, so it’s all about maximizing your tailwind and minimizing your headwind.”

Nicholas Pluta, a senior from West Milford, N.J., is a double major in commercial aviation and aviation safety and operations with a minor in atmospheric sciences, met with members of UND’s race team to help plan their strategy.

2023 Air Race Classic
2023 Air Race Classic launches from UND’s facilities at the Grand Forks International Airport. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

“We helped them figure out the best way to do this race in the shortest amount of time, while also looking at the flight safety angle,” he said. “With my background, I’m combining these two skills – meteorology and aviation – to get them there in the safest and fastest way possible.”

Heron noted that this type of information is extremely helpful and important.

“We can all agree as pilots that we have a good understanding of weather, but these students really know weather maps,” she said. “They know how to read the charts and they’re passionate about it, just like we’re passionate about airplanes,” she said. “They go more in-depth with it to provide an additional layer of help.”

Talia Kurtz, a graduate student from Reno, Nev., who’s working on her master’s degree in atmospheric science, gives the team a weather briefing every morning before they leave on the next leg of the race, which means getting up at 3 or 4 on the morning to do the preparation.

“We look through all the models to figure out if there’s going to be issues with visibility because of VFR (visual flight rules) the team operates under,” she said. “We look for clouds, convection and strong winds. I tell them if it’s better to go another direction or maybe wait a little bit before takeoff.”

This year, all ARC racers got the benefit of the meteorological expertise provided by Remer and his students. Before takeoff, they launched a weather balloon from the airport at 5:30 a.m.

“This had never been done before,” Remer said. “We decided to send the balloon up and get the winds right over Grand Forks just before they departed. They all knew the altitudes for the best winds.”

History and tradition

Gaerte stressed that the value of the ARC extends value beyond the race itself.

“We jokingly call it ‘fly camp’ because you get the networking, you get the briefing and the whole thing is an educational event,” she said. “It’s a competition and everyone’s competitive, but we’re also meeting new friends and coming back to old friends.

“I come every year whether I’m racing or not because these are the girls I see every summer and this is the only time that I see them,” she added.

The future of the race is also a goal of the ARC as an organization.

“The history and tradition of keeping it going is important to me as the president,” Gaerte said. “That’s what we’re working for, that the race can sustain itself year after year. It’s the only race of its kind. It’s the longest lasting one of its kind, and it’s special.”