May 11, 2019
By Robin Blakely
Jeanné Willerth, a well-known Lee’s Summit pilot and Flight Instructor, will take to the skies from June 18 to 21, 2019, in the 43rd Air Race Classic (ARC), the oldest airplane race of its kind in the United States. She will be one of 113 women pilots from across the country and around the world flying in this year’s race, which begins in Jackson, Tennessee and ends in Welland, Ontario.
This historic contest traces its roots to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, aka the Powder Puff Derby, in which Amelia Earhart and 19 other daring female pilots raced from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. That competition marked the beginning of women’s air racing in the United States. This year’s ARC celebrates the 90th anniversary of that historic competition, which marked the beginning of women’s air racing in the United States. Today, the ARC is the epicenter of women’s air racing, the ultimate test of piloting skill and aviation decision-making for female pilots of all ages and from all walks of life.
“It will be thrilling to participate in this international air race on the 90th anniversary of women’s racing. My mother raced in multiple transcontinental or international air races when I was young. She taught me to fly and mentored me.” Jeanné said.
In 1998, Jeanné, with her mother as her co-pilot and Jeanné’s daughter, Stephanie, as an additional team member, made racing history by competing in the Air Race Classic as the first triple generation of women to compete in cross country air racing.
Jeanné Willerth is a Master Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) who provides single and multi-engine flight training in the Kansas City area. She is a presenter nationwide for pilots and flight instructors through AOPA, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. She was named the 2015 “CFI of the Year” for both the Kansas City Flight Standards District and the FAA’s Central Region. Jeanné was the FAA’s 2012 “National FAASTeam Rep of the Year”. She holds an Airline Transport Pilot rating. Jeanné is active in the Ninety-Nines (International Organization of Women Pilots), Society of Flight Educators – SAFE, and the Missouri Pilots Association. She volunteers for public benefit flying for organizations such as Angel Flight Central, Challenge Air, and Young Eagles. Jeanné holds both undergraduate and master’s degrees in mathematics. She has been an off ice official for the KC Mavericks Hockey team for 10 years. She is a former Lee’s Summit Airport Board member and is currently a board member of the Greater Lee’s Summit Healthcare Foundation.
Jeanné Willerth and her race partner, Jenna Rouillard of Maine, will compete in the 43rd Air Race Classic as the “Mighty Mavericks” against 50 other teams, flying a 2,538-mile course from the home of rockabilly and the blues in the American South across Midwestern farmlands and northward around the Great Lakes, over the U.S.-Canada border and eastward across southern Ontario, ending near Niagara Falls.
The race will begin at 8 a.m. June 18 at McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport in Jackson, with teams taking off one right after another, 30 seconds apart. From there, the field will spread out as faster planes move to the head of the pack. At each stop — LaGrange, Georgia; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Bryant, Arkansas; Lee’s Summit, Missouri; Fairmont, Minnesota; Wausau, Wisconsin; Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan/Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; North Bay, Ontario; and Brantford, Ontario — teams will execute a high-speed flyby over a timing line as they race against the clock. Faster planes may cover the course in only two days; slower teams may not arrive at the Terminus, Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport in Welland — named in honor of one of Canada’s legendary aviatrixes — until moments before the arrival deadline at 5 p.m. on June 21.
Because each plane receives a unique handicap, teams are racing against their own best time, not against one another. This creates a level playing field, so slower planes can compete against faster aircraft on an equal basis. Teams strategize to play the elements, holding out for better weather or seeking more favorable winds, to beat their handicap by the greatest margin. Official standings aren’t determined until after the last team has crossed the finish line – the last arrival at the Terminus may, in fact, be the winner!
The ARC draws competitors of all ages, from teenagers to veteran pilots in their 80s, and from all walks of life, from college students to professional airline pilots to military veterans to teachers, writers, doctors and businesswomen. For some teams, the ARC is a family affair, with multiple generations competing together every year. For others, the ARC presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience parts of the country far from home. For all, it is a chance to engage in fierce competition while sharing their love of flying – especially with young people – expanding their knowledge and skill as pilots, and encouraging the next generation of brave, fearless women to take to the air.
Air Race Classic Inc. is an all-volunteer, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with a mission of encouraging and educating current and future female pilots, increasing public awareness of general aviation, demonstrating women’s roles in aviation, and preserving and promoting the tradition of pioneering women in aviation. For more information, go to airraceclassic.org.