Running with the wind

Two young women used their determination, commitment and teamwork to win a 13-hour-long race, that took them across six states.

Sarah Morris, 22, of Jonesboro, said she and her partner, Leah Hetzel, 21, of Ohio, became the first collegiate team to win the 2011 Air Race Classic, a transcontinental competition for female pilots. She said she they flew a Cirrus SR20 aircraft for three days.

Morris said they received a first-place, gold medal for their win and a plaque officially recognizing their status as the first collegiate team to win the event.

"Just the anxiety, anticipation, it was so exciting," said Hetzel, of their win. "I've known about this race since I was in high school," she added. "The idea of racing aircraft, nothing is cooler than that."

Morris said this was the team's second time participating in the race, and she and Hetzel were totally focused on winning it. Last year, they finished 14th. "We had been training on that airplane, but that was the first time we had done anything else on that airplane," she said.

Morris said she and Hetzel represented Jacksonville University, in Jacksonville, Fla. The race drew 50 teams, including 11 collegiate teams, representing universities such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach, Fla.; University of Illinois, in Urbana, Ill.; and Indiana State University, in Terre Haute, Ind., she said.

She said the race began in Alliance, Neb., and ended in Mobile, Ala. There were five stops along the way, in states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, she explained.

The stops, said Morris, were at municipal or regional airports, where pilots could refuel their airplanes, inspect the aircraft, and rest.

She and Hetzel took turns piloting and navigating, Morris said. "Along the way, we were super nervous, super excited," she added. "We could tell we were going fast. We had good tailwind throughout the whole race."

Making correct decisions was a real challenge, during the race, she said. Estimating the altitude of the aircraft, and figuring out the wind's direction correctly could lead to, either great speed, or disaster, said Morris.

For a faster speed, she said, airplanes should fly in the same direction the wind is flowing, not against it. "We had to check the weather to make sure there were no thunderstorms on route," she added.

The race took place from June 22-24, and the two women were announced as winners, during an awards banquet for the competition, on June 26, she said.

"It is not the person who gets to the destination first; it is the person who is able to fly the fastest according to their airplane's capabilities," Morris explained.

She said the Cirrus SR20 was capable of flying up to 146 knots. The average speed she and Morris managed was 150 knots, though they went up to 185 knots. The wind assisted the aircraft in reaching those levels, she said. "I think our partnership is the best ... if we were uncomfortable doing something, we wouldn't do it."

Morris said she was part of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Lovejoy High School, and was one of two students chosen to participate in the Discovery Flight at Clayton County Airport-Tara Field, in Hampton, during her 11th-grade year.

The flight lesson allowed her to take off and fly the aircraft, she said. "I couldn't believe it. It has always been something I had wanted to do, that I didn't think I'd do."

She was the 2007 valedictorian at Lovejoy High School, she said, and enrolled in Jacksonville University. She and Hetzel met at the university, and graduated in 2010 with Bachelor of Science degrees in aviation management and flying operations.

According to the university's web site, www.ju.edu, Morris graduated summa cum laude.

Morris said she wants to do missionary flying to assist people living in areas inaccessible to hospitals, in third world countries. She said she wants to be part of Missionary Aviation Fellowship, a non-profit organization.

To achieve her goal, she has enrolled in a one-year program at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., to obtain an Airframe and Power Plant Maintenance certification.

Hetzel said she is currently interning at the flight operations department of Delta Air Lines, and is enjoying every minute of it. She said she is living at Morris' home until the end of her internship, in August.

Her short-term goal is to fly for Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a regional airlines for Delta. She said she ultimately wants to fly Boeing 747's or Boeing 777's for Delta Air Lines.

Hetzel said she and Morris didn't become close friends until last year, when they were racing partners for the 2010 Air Race Classic. She said each thought of the other as competition, during their first two years at Jacksonville University.

Hetzel said she hopes to participate in the Air Race Classic again with Morris, when they are old and gray. "Once we are little, old ladies, we will come back and race it again," she said, giggling.