When people talk about aviation it is often referred to as a mostly male dominated field. When you think of Air Racing, you most definitely think of it being a male dominated sport, well that is certainly not the case in the Jet Class at the Reno Air races!
Throughout the Jet Class teams you will meet a large number of women from all fields of aviation, including two all-girl crews and a female owned team which also includes a the fastest woman on earth, female race pilot Vicky Benzing.
We are referred to as the ‘Ladies of the Jet Class’, an incredible bunch of feisty females who are intent on making our mark in the male dominated sport of air racing, whilst still sporting our nicely manicured nails!
I recently had the opportunity to chat more to some of these unique ladies that I have worked so closely with over the last few years, and it is very plain to see the passion that drives them to be a part of the air racing community. Known as the fastest motor sport on earth, this adrenaline pumping racing is not for the faint hearted. Racing at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour, at a height of 50 – 250 feet above the ground, with other racers trying to overtake you and force you to cut pylons and incur high flying penalties, it is a ruthless race against the clock and your own personal limitations.
Race pilot Vicky Benzing was born and raised in California, Vicky is an accomplished pilot, skydiver, aerobatic performer, and air racer. With over 8000 hours of flight time and over 1200 parachute jumps, Vicky has a passion for everything airborne. Her flying career has spanned over thirty years and she currently holds an Airline Transport Pilot rating as well as commercial ratings in helicopters, seaplanes, and gliders.
Vicky’s was inspired to learn to fly by watching her uncle who was an airshow and an air race pilot. He seemed larger than life to her when she was young. A lucky girl, Vicky learned to fly in a family friend’s antique Taylorcraft in her hometown of Watsonville on the California coast. She was thrilled by the spins, loops, and rolls that her ex-military instructor taught her and today Vicky holds a surface level aerobatic waiver and has flown over 200 air show performances at venues across the US, including performing three times at the largest airshow in the world, EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI.
Vicky got the racing bug in 2010 when her friend Lee Behel invited her to “come play in my sandbox” at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, NV. Initially competing in the Sport Class, Vicky was chosen “Rookie of the Year” after winning her first race ever. In 2013, her friend Rick Vandam offered to let her race his L-39 jet. Vicky jumped at the chance and began racing with the Jet Class. Vicky currently competes in both the Sport Class and the Jet Class and in 2015 Vicky made history as the fastest woman racer ever in the history of the Reno Air Races when she qualified Dianna Stanger’s one-of-a-kind L-139 jet on the race course at 469.831 mph!
“The most fun part of performing or air racing is getting to interact with the young airshow and air race fans, especially the little girls.” It’s her hope that she might inspire these young people to fly in the same way that she was inspired to fly by her uncle when she was young, and believe me, when you meet Vicky in person, you will quickly see she is truly and incredible role model for any young woman considering learning to fly!
The race crews are responsible for maintaining the aircraft equipment and ensuring it is running at the optimum level. Teams work closely with the Ramp Crew Chief to ensure that they are ready to race and on the apron line up in time. Enduring high pressure workloads often conducted in extreme heat and treacherous conditions it is not a job for the faint hearted!
It is a heart pounding 15 minute experience watching the race – watching the aircraft, watching the clock, watching the pilots challenging each other around the track and pushing each other and their aircraft to the absolute limits. It can be a very stressful experience and you often feel somewhat helpless watching from the ground, especially if a mayday is called during the race. It seems that the female crews always band together and support each other during the races, even though we are on competing teams, we all stick together.
Kathy is one of the crew working with the Darkstar Air Racing team owned by Dianna Stanger. Kathy has been around aviation most of her adult life, holds a private pilot licence and is the partner of the Jet Class Ramp Chief Minh Venator – owner of Minh Jet.
“I went to Reno on a date in 1998 and saw my first Reno Air Race….. it was awesome! Two years later I went again and met Minh, then a year later the Jet class was started and I met my September family for the first time, despite 9/11 happening. I’ve been here every year since with Minh, except for the year my daughter was born. I started bringing our kids in 2009 now they refuse to miss an air race. In 2013 I was bored with being Mrs Minh Jet and happened to open my big mouth one day saying “I WANT TO CREW” that was the year Vicky Benzing started racing in the Jet class and I was nominated as her Crew Chief. GULP!! I was lucky to have a good buddy jet mechanic with me and it was an awesome year. As the years have gone on, I’m still ‘Mrs Minh Jet’ but I focus on crewing for Vicky each year now – we girls gotta stick together! I love crewing and helping out, wherever I can. I wouldn’t trade the experience or my September family for anything!”
Airplane mechanic Santina Estrada is often found in unusual places during the races, like down the intakes of the L39 jet! Santina has been attending the races for a few years now and works with Minh Jet in California and crews with Darkstar Air Racing.
“When I was younger, about 9 or so my mom would take us to fleet week in San Francisco that’s where I fell in love with aviation watching the blue angels rip through the sky and that sound they fill the air with was just well it would leave you speechless, the feeling I felt was indescribable and I always had a natural pull towards aviation. When I heard a plane in the sky I just had to look up and find it. There is no one in my family in aviation which made my decision to become an A&P and one day a pilot that much more distant not so much unattainable but uncommon.”
Santina soon found herself enrolled into an AMT course 100 miles away from her home, she commuted for a year and a half, finished school and started working on experimental home builds.
“I was doing it. I was working towards making my dreams come true. That was until the company started having to make cuts, and yours truly was the last man on the totem pole and first to go. It was a tough pill to swallow and I’ll admit it kind of made me question what I was doing but just for a moment, but then fate happened and about 6 weeks later I got a call from a former classmate asking if I was still interested in working on airplanes of course I said yes!”
When Santina was first hired by Minh Jet she never imagined in her wildest dreams what she was getting herself into! Initially they were working on a complete rebuild of an A26 but that was put on hold to prep our planes for Reno. And what does that mean??? It means thorough inspections of all racing jets completion of any mods to be done and test flights, lots and lots of test flights. The jets must be perfectly tuned and ready to race.
“As far as what got me into racing well I like to think fate/destiny. Fate brought be to Minh Jet the fact that I used to watch the amazing Vicky Benzing in awe pull out her beautiful red Stearman, Extra 300s or citation from the hangar next to ours while in school and thinking to myself I want to be like her when I grow up, to building an L39 albatross just for her to fly during the races causes me to believe the path I’m on is meant to be. I believe I’m just living out my destiny. This is definitely the beginning of something so great. I am so grateful for my opportunities the wonderful people I meet and most of all being able to show my children through example you can absolutely do anything your heart desires no matter where you come from or what anyone says you just have to work hard and stay focused. One day I will be racing in the jet class at the National Championship Reno Air races until then I’ll be building the best air racers you’ve ever seen!” said Santina
Margie Sullivan is an Australian commercial pilot with over 3000 hours in her log book. Margie has had a colourful career from being a flying instructor in the remote outback, to flying citations in and out of Sydney airport. Margie initially came to the air races with us in 2013, to ‘see what the fuss was all about’, then once bitten by the air racing bug, she found herself back to the races every year, crewing on the ramp with our Australian jet team CCTRacing.
While chatting to Margie she recalled her very first day attending the air races. “It was so exiting and so interesting. Nothing like it in the world! I was constantly taking photos to try and share the experience with my family and friends. Now, after my fourth Reno, it is so rewarding to feel a part of the jet crew family, I have made so many wonderful friends and I find myself constantly surrounded by generous supportive crews.”
Jodi Preston works as ground support for her cousin Dianna’s jet race team, Darkstar Air Racing. “There is not a time, that I can remember aviation NOT being a part of my life. As a child of a military father, watching airplanes on the base runway, was a Friday night ritual. My family owns a flight school now, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I currently am employed with United Airlines. Dianna is an aviation advocate and a jet racing team owner. Our Grandfather was a pilot. Aviation is in our blood.”
It was Jodi’s cousin Dianna who enthusiastically encouraged her to join the jet class and attend the races.
“I enjoy all classes of air racing, but due to family locality – the jet class is my favourite. Air racing is still a very male-dominated sport. It is rare and exciting to see more women teams, female pilots, female A&P’s and female ground support. Women are taking a more active role in air racing. The barriers are breaking down. Slowly, we are showing the world that we too have a spot in the world of air racing.” Jodi is one of her cousin Dianna’s biggest supporters and her enthusiasm for aviation oozes from her every second.
Jen Steiger has been involved with the air racing since meeting her husband Michael, who races every year and is also an instructor of the Jet Class.” I was drawn to aviation through my son’s involvement with their father, my ex-husband, who is an airline pilot, both of my sons have learnt to fly, being around aviation since they were four years old. When I met Michael, I was thrilled to find that he was a ‘true’ aviator, in every sense of the word. Not only does he race in the jet class, he fly’s warbirds and works for the airlines.” Jen has been involved in the jet class community since 2013 and crews for her husband’s team as well as manages the marketing for Racing Jets.
So I guess the Ladies of the Jet Class are very unique, we are all aviation people, all touched by the bug that is air racing. We all come from different back grounds but it is the common thread that connects us together and has given us the incredible bonds of friendship that extend across the world.
We know that it is not that common to see a group of women pulling apart jet airplanes or even racing them, but that is what sets us apart from the rest. I truly love my September family and every year look forward to heading over to Reno NV, to catch up with old friends, make some new friends and become a part of this unique community that is air racing.
GO LOW< GO FAST < TURN LEFT & RACE ON!