Local pilot prepares for the flight of her life05/31/2022 02:26PM ● By Richard Gaw
Photo by Richard L. Gaw Melissa Shrewsbury and her co-pilot Lauren Heisey will be participating in the 45th Air Race Classic from June 21-24.
By Richard L. Gaw
As a child growing up in Cecil County, Melissa Shrewsbury quickly became obsessed with learning as much as she could about the wide open universe she was seeing through her telescope.
She studied the patterns of the moon, and how to find stars, and over time, her goal of someday reaching space became a journey that began when she received her pilot’s license six years ago. For the past year, Shrewsbury has been a certified flight instructor with the New Garden Flight Connection, and taking her students high above the New Garden Flying Field and beyond, the sensation of flight has become a regular one for her.
From June 21 to June 24, the 28-year-old pilot will embark on a sensation of another kind -- her largest and longest journey through the skies.
Shrewsbury and her co-pilot Lauren Heisey – a student of Shrewsbury’s -- will be participating in the 45th Air Race Classic (ARC), the annual all-women cross-country airplane race that this year will feature 51 teams and 115 female pilots for a 2,549-mile competition.
Starting at Lakeland Linder International Airport in Lakeland, Fla. on June 21, the race will then make nine stops along its route: Moultrie Municipal Airport in Moultrie, Ga.; Muscle Shoals Airport in Muscle Shoals, Ala.; Hattiesburg Bobby L. Chain Municipal Airport in Hattiesburg, Miss.; Pine Bluff Regional Airport - Grider Field in Pine Bluff, Ark.; Ada Regional Airport in Ada, Okla.; Lawrence Municipal Airport in Lawrence, Kan.; Mount Vernon Outland Airport in Mount Vernon, Ill.; Tullahoma Regional Airport - William Northern Field in Tullahoma, Tenn.; and finish at Terre Haute Regional Airport in Terre Haute, Ind. on June 24.
Shrewsbury, Heisey and all other contestants will be given four days, flying in daylight hours, to reach the terminus. Each airplane will be assigned a handicap speed – and the goal will be to have the actual ground speed be as far over the handicap speed as possible.
Previously, Shrewsbury’s longest stretch of flying started in South Dakota, flew to Nebraska, then to North Dakota and back to South Dakota – about 300 nautical miles in total.
“This race is a way for me to test all of my knowledge and skills about aviation and piloting a plane, and it’s also about chasing my own curiosity,” Shrewsbury said. “We are given the place and the time line but we aren’t prepared for what weather we may get into until the night before. Many things involved in the race happen in real time as we face them. It will force me to answer the questions, ‘What am I going to get into?’ and ‘How am I going to spontaneously react to various situations?’
“The ARC will give Lauren and me the opportunity to decide our course and the altitude we will be flying at.”
When Shrewsbury takes off from Lakeland, Fla. later this month, she will add her name into the lengthening list of women pilots who have participated in women’s air racing over the last century. In 1929, the Women’s Air Derby debuted, featuring 20 pilots who raced from Santa Monica, Calif. to Cleveland, Ohio. The popularity of the sport grew in the 1930s and was renewed again after World War II when the All Women’s Transcontinental Air race – commonly known as the Powder Puff Derby – began in 1947 and later became the ARC in the 1970s.
The Air Race Classic was reincorporated in 2002 into the Air Race Classic, Inc., a non-profit 501(c)(3) educational organization. The ARC encourages and educates current and future women pilots while preserving and promoting the tradition of pioneering women in aviation.
Sound of Adventure
Although Shrewsbury will be entering the ARC for the first time, the Cessna Skyhawk she will be piloting already owns a piece of aviation history. The plane was once owned and used by long-distance pilot and author Kay Blevins, whose book Sound of Adventure chronicles her love affair with flying, her dream to fly in a transcontinental race and her eventual rise to become a competitor in several Powder Puff races.
The irony of piloting the very same plane as Blevins is not lost on Shrewsbury.
“I came to the New Garden Flying Field to complete my commercial pilot’s license, and used the very same plane,” Shrewsbury said.
Shrewsbury said that her entry in the ARC, being a licensed pilot for the past six years and her service as a certified flight instructor at the New Garden Flight Connection for the past year have been major stepping stones toward her ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut. It’s a long road traveled and one met with several obstacles; when Shrewsbury was in high school, she applied to the Air Force Academy, but did not have the technical skills about aviation that may have gained her entry.
“I went into an Air Force recruiter’s office during my senior year in high school and asked him, ‘What does it take to become a pilot in the military?’” she said. “He laughed and told me that I could not, and when I asked him to explain, he told me that it was because I was a woman.”
When Shrewsbury first imagined a life in the skies, she said that there were very few female idols in aviation that she could cling onto in order to imagine her dream as someday becoming realized. Soon after she took her first flight lessons in Cecil County when she was 20, her flight instructor told her about The Ninety-Nines, Inc., an international organization for women pilots that promotes advancement of aviation through education, scholarships, and mutual support.
Soon after she received her private pilots’ license six years ago, Shrewsbury made a promise to herself and her fellow women aviators.
“I made a promise to give back in any way possible, so that the next person behind me is able to grab my hand and allow me to lead her better than I was led.”
To learn more about The Air Race Classic, visit www.airraceclassic.org.
To learn more about the Ninety-Nines, Inc., visit www.ninety-nines.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].