The Thrill of Valley Air Derby Includes Some Fear of Flying

Times Staff Writer

The two women in identical hot pink jump suits emptied their purses, dumping out all the change and miscellaneous junk that seems to mysteriously breed therein.

But their intent was not to tidy up their personal belongings.

Melody Rich and Mardell Haskins were intent on winning the annual Valley Air Derby, which attracted 66 pilots and co-pilots and their small planes to Van Nuys Airport on Saturday.

Any extra weight can slow a racing plane. Even bugs and dirt on an airplane can cut the speed by 2 to 3 miles per hour. So before the 200-mile race began, the airplane jocks were wiping and waxing their planes in hopes of improving their speed.

"It's enough to make a difference in the race," said Steve Shotthafer, a race official who inspected the planes before takeoff.

Valley Chapter of the 99s

The race was sponsored by the Valley chapter of the 99s, an international association of women pilots that was christened in 1928 when 99 women--including its first president, Amelia Earhart--attended the initial meeting.

Some of the best women racers in the country belong to the Van Nuys chapter, said Rich, who is a flight instructor from Point Hueneme.

Saturday's winners were Mary Rawlings of Woodland Hills and Tom Littlefield of Northridge, who flew a Piper Tomahawk in 1 hour, 26 minutes.

The race course was kept secret until Friday, when maps were distributed to participants. The course took the planes over Hesperia, Apple Valley, Sun Valley and Newhall.

Each plane receives a handicap based on its size and other specifications.

Planes Handicapped

For instance, a Cessna 182 owned by Jeanne Fenimore, chairwoman of the local 99 chapter, and her husband, was handicapped at 143 m.p.h. If they had flown the race at an average speed of 160 m.p.h., they would have received 17 points.

The winner was the crew with the highest number, which in this race was 14 points.

"We're thrill seekers," said participant Sonia Scheimberg of Van Nuys. She was co-pilot and navigator with Bill Speaker.

Racers were especially concerned with high winds, which make flying trickier.

"It's not dangerous, but it's very uncomfortable," Scheimberg said. "It's nerve-racking."

In the end, emptying their purses did not help the women in the pink jump suits much, but they did finish a respectable eighth place. And they got their Piper Tomahawk back safely under windy conditions.

Confided Haskins, "We scare ourselves sometimes."

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