Air Race Classic flying into Fairmont airport

FAIRMONT — The skies over southern Minnesota will be buzzing next week as participants in the 43rd annual Air Race Classic fly more than 2,500 miles in a dash from Tennessee to Ontario, connecting with Fairmont and eight other airports along the way.

The teams on 49 planes, all piloted by women, will depart at 30-second intervals, starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, from a Jackson, Tenn., airport. The planes must make a stop or execute a high-speed low pass across a timing line at airports in LaGrange, Ga.; Hattiesburg, Miss.; Bryant, Ark.; Lee’s Summit, Mo.; Fairmont; Wausau, Wis.; Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; North Bay, Ontario; Brantford, Ontario; and the final destination of Welland, Ontario. The deadline to arrive in Welland is 5 p.m. Friday, June 21, and pilots are allowed to fly only from 6:30 a.m. to sundown.

Fairmont pilot Verlus Burkhart is part of a group of volunteers that has been preparing for the arrival of the pilots, their teams and their aircraft. The Fairmont Airport Board, airport manager Lee Steinkamp, Ruth Cyphers, Kate Hawkins and others volunteers have spent many hours planning and coordinating the event, he said.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see,” Burkhart said. “There’s probably going to be at least 30 people here on the ground during the race.”

While the main focus will be on the pilots, the public is encouraged to come out and enjoy the festivities. People are cautioned to stay behind the airport fence as part of the stringent safety protocol that will be in place. A television in the terminal will show the position of all the racers so the volunteers will know whether they need to be ready for 2 or 20 planes coming in.

Burkhart is serving as stop chairman for the Fairmont site, meaning he is responsible for keeping track of where the airplanes are.

“We account for every airplane every day and every night,” he said.

When a plane is 10 miles from Fairmont, the pilot will radio its approach to the airport, a process that is repeated at one mile out.

“They will have all their lights on. They must descend until they are between 200 and 400 feet from the ground,” Burkhart said. “They will fly across the timing line. They won’t know where the line is. They only know that they have to fly parallel to the runway. As long as everybody is timed in the same identical spot, it becomes a real fair race.”

Burkhart’s job is to record this arrival time. If the plane has enough fuel to make it to Wausau, which is a mandatory stop, it will cross the timing line a second time to record its departure time and continue on. If the pilot stops for fuel, the departure time is recorded after the pilot takes off and makes a low pass over the timing line.

“Many of them will stop for fuel. They will time this out so they won’t carry extra fuel weight,” Burkhart said.

“We’re 1,398 miles from the race start, and there are some planes that can make that in a day,” he said. “The total race distance from start to the finish in Canada is 2,538 miles covering nine states.

“They are flying everything from high-speed airplanes like a Cirrus to slower ones like the Luscombe. The race is handicapped so it’s not necessarily won by the fastest airplane that gets there first but whoever manages their flight times the best.”

Pilots have strong math skills. They must calculate whether it is advantageous for them to burn fuel and time to climb to a higher elevation in search of a better tailwind.

Burkhart ventures that the majority of the planes will hit Fairmont on Wednesday and believes this would be the ideal time for families to visit the airport. The Women of Today will have a “Touch a Plane” event from 5-7 p.m. that day.

“If they’ve got a fast plane and the winds are good, we could see a plane come in Tuesday evening, but we definitely will have planes on Wednesday and Thursday,” he said.

Because pilots can only fly using visual flight rules, not instruments, rain or low visibility could curtail some flights.

Fairmont already has made an impact on the pilots, who range in age from college students to a woman in her 90s. At a pre-race banquet, the teams received bacon candy and pork seasoning as an introduction to Martin County’s status as Bacon Capital USA.

The pilots who stop in Fairmont will be treated to drinks, foods, snacks, charging stations for electronic devices and other types of pampering. At the end of the race, all pilots will complete a “best stop” survey, rating the refueling process, flight plan area, ground crew assistance and other categories.

“They are going to grade us on hospitality and enthusiasm. They are going to grade us on cleanliness and the interest from the public,” Burkhart said. “At some future date, we’d like all these people to come back for a visit.”

More information on the Air Race Classic is available online at www.arc.org