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SIU Carbondale female aviators compete in Air Race Classic

Published: Jun. 17, 2021 at 3:10 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 5:58 PM CDT
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CARBONDALE, Ill. (KFVS) - A flight send-off was held for three teams from Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s School of Aviation.

The teams are headed to compete in the 2021 Air Race Classic, the nation’s only women’s air race.

SIU’s three flight crews, each consisting of an instructor and student, will be in new 2021 Cessna 172S aircraft.

The three teams include:

  • The Saluki Dawgs - Pilot Meadow Boden and co-pilot Rachel Piacentini. Boden is a junior in aviation management and flight from Bushnell, Illinois and is working on her instrument rating and time building for her commercial pilot certificate. Piacentini is chief pilot of executive transportation for SIU and competed twice in the event, as a student in 2016 and as an instructor in 2018.
  • The Saluki Aces - Pilot Sophie Ottoson and co-pilot Gabrielle Escudero. Ottoson is a senior in aviation management and flight from Kaneville, Illinois and is working toward her commercial certificate. Escudero is a flight instructor at SIU and hopes to fly for the airlines someday as well. She and Piacentini teamed together in the 2018 air race. Ottoson and Escudero have been trying to complete the normal four-day Air Race Classic for two years now, but COVID-19 threw a wrench in their plans a year ago.
  • The Saluki Sky Surfers - Pilot Vernecelyn Allen and co-pilot Abby Lee. Allen, who is from Memphis, Tennessee, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aviation management in May 2021. She will finish her aviation flight program in August and is completing her flight instructor certification. Lee graduated from SIU’s aviation program in 2020 and is a certified flight instructor.

“It’s surreal feeling being able to represent the university, and it was definitely a goal of mine coming in,” said Aviation Pilot Meadow Boden.

Boden has dreamed of taking off in the Air Classic ever since her freshman year of high school.

“It gives me shivers thinking about it, just because aviation is a small industry to be with; and watching it grow even when I came in my class, coming in to SIU had more females in it than like many, many classes before and seeing that statistic slowly rise is amazing to me,” she said.

After the race was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pilot Sophie Ottoson is ready to fly.

“There’s just over 8 percent of females who are pilots in the nation, so it’s pretty exciting to be able to participate in an event like this, just supporting female aviators and encouraging young girls to join the industry, so I’m really excited for that,” she said.

Another student pilot competing in the race, Vernecelyn Allen, said the route they fly has to be precise.

“So when we’re passing the point that in the sky, the latitude and longitude coordinates that we’ve chosen to denote the next leg, we have to pass that point within .5 nautical miles and so it has to be very accurate and you can’t get off your route within 7 miles I believe,” she said.

It’s a trip of a lifetime for these young pilots, ready to spread their wings.

“To all the women who, to the young girls who are interested in aviation, I hope that they follow that goal because you could be in that position that Rachel was in some day or Gabby or any of our flight instructors. It’s just, the sky’s never the limit,” Boden said.

Weather permitting, they will participate later in the week or this weekend.

Each of the certified flight instructors graduated from SIU’s aviation program, which is projected to have at least 15 percent female aviation flight students in the program this fall. That is nearly double the national average of 8 percent of licensed female pilots.

This is the sixth year SIU will be represented in the event.

In 2015, Stephanie Armstrong and Jessica Reed won both the overall and collegiate division title.

The Air Race Classic celebrates the history of women in aviation.

More than 80 teams from across the nation, including 15 collegiate teams, are scheduled to compete.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 44th Air Race Classic will be an Air Derby. Instead of the usual format where race routes are approximately 2,400 statute miles with eight or nine timing points that last several days, teams this year choose their own five-leg, one-day route between June 12 and June 26.

Awards will be announced June 27 during a virtual event.

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