The Women’s Air Race Classic team. Coach Megan Bradshaw (center) with (front left) Savannah Hughes, Lindsay Streinmaus, Emma Hazel and then Chloe Cady, Liv Smith, and Gracie Johnson. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

Two three-woman squads from Liberty University’s Liberty Belles flight team flew Cessna Skyhawk 172SPs out of Lynchburg on Friday morning to join the field of 53 teams arriving in Lakeland, Florida, the starting point of the 45th Air Race Classic, the annual women’s cross-country airplane race.

This will mark the 10th time that members of Liberty’s team, made up of current School of Aeronautics students and flight instructors, have participated in the historic race.

A total of 115 women pilots, co-pilots and navigators from across the United States and around the world will chart their respective routes for the four-day, 2,549-mile race with a total of nine fly-bys and stops. Starting on Tuesday, they will journey through 12 states, arriving at the race’s terminus in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Friday.

The Liberty Belles I plane features Olivia Smith as the pilot, Chloe Cady as co-pilot and Gracie Johnson as their teammate. Cady flew the race previously, in 2019.

Lindsay Steinmaus will pilot the Liberty Belles II aircraft, with Emma Hazel serving as co-pilot and Savannah Hughes as a teammate.

Liberty School of Aeronautics instructor course chief Megan Bradshaw, a former ARC competitor who is in her third season as the Liberty Belles’ head coach, will oversee both teams’ odysseys, meeting them in Florida and again in Indiana for the final banquet. Operating remotely from Lynchburg during the race, Bradshaw will remain in communication with the teams’ navigators to help them monitor the weather and make wise decisions prior to takeoff and in flight, as well as helping to book hotels, according to a release from Liberty.

The Liberty Belles I and II flight crews will be competing against one another, as well as the rest of the field that includes 18 collegiate teams. Team members range from college students to 94-year-old Marie Carastro, the oldest ARC competitor in the race’s 93-year history.

The race is open to single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft ranging from 145 to 570 horsepower, with a handicap system leveling the field. The first plane to land in Terre Haute is not necessarily the winner, as total flight time is the determining factor.

“Before we actually start the race, we do a handicap flight where we go up to an altitude of 6,000 feet and fly North and West and South and East for three-minute legs,” Steinmaus said in a statement. “You take the average of the ground-speed readouts, recorded every 30 seconds, to get your handicap speed. This is the speed we’re trying to beat, so we are pretty much racing ourselves. Whoever beats their handicap speed by the most is the team that wins.”