Lee's Summit Journal

For this pilot, Lee’s Summit airport stop on ‘Air Race Classic’ will feel like home

Jeanne Willerth with her Cessna 182 Skylane.
Jeanne Willerth with her Cessna 182 Skylane. Courtesy photo

Flying is second nature for Jeanné Willerth, so when she competes in the 43rd annual Air Race Classic later this month, she’ll be comfortable. The winding race path will bring the 113 female pilots through Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport between June 21 and 23.

It’s Willerth’s third time competing in this race. She and fellow pilot Jenna Rouillard will fly as the “Mighty Mavericks” along the approximately 2,400-mile route that twists from Tennessee through Georgia and Missouri, ending up in Welland, Ontario, in Canada. Pilots must fly to 10 airports over three days. Lee’s Summit is the fourth of the required stops on the race route.

They’ll fly in Rouillard’s Piper Cherokee PA-28-180, a plane Willerth won’t get the chance to see until they’re ready to start the race, as the two haven’t met in person. Rouillard lives in Maine. They connected online and have done video chats.

“It’ll be an adventure for both of us. At the end, we’ll decide if it’s a good adventure or a bad adventure, but it’s always an adventure,” said Willerth, who lives in Lee’s Summit.

Mentoring younger female pilots is one of the benefits of air racing, as is the sense of accomplishment each pilot gets from finishing the course, Willerth said.

“When a woman finishes a race she feels like she can fly anywhere. It’s an amazing adventure.”

John Ohrazda, manager of the Lee’s Summit airport, said the race is a great opportunity to showcase the airport to pilots from across the country. He hopes it increases the number of pilots who will fly through Lee’s Summit on business in the future.

This isn’t like some other races, where everyone starts at the same time, and the first to cross the finish line wins.

To account for the variety of planes competitors fly, each team gets a handicap based on its plane. From there, the pilots are essentially competing against that handicap.

“You go out with a judge, and they figure out what your plane should do. That levels the playing field (since) everyone can’t have the same kind of plane,” Willerth said. “You don’t know who’s going to win until all the numbers come in.”

One major limitation of the race is that pilots can’t fly above the clouds or at night.

Their first take-off is set by race officials, but after that, pilots must decide – based on weather, daylight and fuel – how many airports they want to fly to each day and what time they’ll set off for each one. Other variables that can affect their speed include tailwinds and altitude.

“It’s very tiring. Think of a 2,500-mile car trip,” Willerth said. “…We will not have an auto-pilot, so flying the plane will be a full-time job.”

And, like a car, these tiny planes have no bathrooms.

As long as they have enough fuel for the next leg, they don’t have to actually land at each race stop. Some pilots will simply do a fly-by at 200 feet in the air.

Planning is key, because stopping anywhere but an official race airport will disqualify your team. Reckless flying is also a potential disqualifier.

Once pilots have landed, they can fuel up and continue, wait for a bit if they need a break, stop if there’s bad weather or stop and spend the night.

“You can drive in weather you would not fly in,” Willerth said.

Willerth learned to fly from her mother, who flew in the Women’s Air Derby, known at the Powder Puff Derby. They flew together in the Air Race Classic in 1998, with Willerth’s mother as the co-pilot at age 75.

After a long career with IBM, Willerth now trains and certifies pilots for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association as a master certified flight instructor.

“I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to tell a bunch of men what to do,” Willerth said.

The Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport, at 402 NE Leinweber Road, will have an open house from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, when many of the race pilots will be flying by. Between the open house and the race, Ohrazda cautioned that traffic will be busier than normal near the airport.

For more information about the race or volunteering to help with the race, visit www.airraceclassic.org.

Freelance writer Karen Ridder contributed to this story.