Elizabeth Keller and Madison Taylor are embarking on the race of their young lifetimes.
The Middle Tennessee State University senior aerospace professional pilot majors and self-proclaimed “Barnstorming Babes” left Murfreesboro Airport Wednesday, June 13, bound for Sweetwater, Texas, and the June 19 start of the four-day Air Race Classic.
The event is the longest-running transcontinental air race for female pilots. MTSU senior Gabriella “Ella” Lindskoug and Department of Aerospace alumna Jordan Cantrell, competed in the 2017 event, placing 26th and becoming the first pilots from MTSU to finish the race. They’re competing again this year.
After raising about $12,000 from sponsors, family and friends, yard sales, Facebook pages and a GoFundMe account to help finance the endeavor, Taylor, 22, of Franklin, Tennessee, and Keller, 20, from Maryville, Tennessee, said they’re over-the-top ready to spread their wings and soar.
“We’re very excited,” said Taylor, formerly from Houston, Texas. “It’s more ‘ecstatic and pumped.’ We are ready to get there. We’ve heard some of the other women are crazily competitive. We have no idea what to expect, so we’re going to make it up as we go along.”
“We are ready for a different type of experience,” added Keller. “This will help us grow as pilots.”
Keller played a major role in obtaining the plane they’ll be using — a new Cessna Skyhawk 172 as part of Textron Aviation Inc.’s Top Hawk program. She and fellow flight instructor Harry Arcamudi submitted an applicationt o use the aircraft that turned out to be one of only five nationwide chosen by Textron officials. MTSU’s Department of Aerospace is flying the custom-branded plane until the end of September.
Nick Lenczycki, MTSU Flight Operations program manager, said Taylor and Keller “have been working very hard, preparing for this trip. They have worked tirelessly finding sponsors, promoting the event and aggressively planning to compete.
“They have put in the time and effort,” he added. “They will represent MTSU well.”
The duo will log about 4,000 miles and 40 hours round trip by the time they return to Murfreesboro. The Air Race Classic, which stopped in Murfreesboro in 2016, features nine stops along the route, which zig-zags to the north and then to the east before ending in Maine.
The pair packed for 12 days’ travel, including four matching outfits. They had to plan for banquets, a hiring fair and other scheduled events as well as flying without air conditioning.
Their safety, like their competitors’, is of utmost importance. They won’t fly when it’s cloudy or overcast, and they can only fly from sunrise to sunset.
Taylor’s parents, Mary Beth and Mark Taylor of Franklin, took the pilots to breakfast Wednesday morning and plan to meet them at a stop along the way. Mary Beth Taylor is a flight attendant with United Airlines.
Keller’s mother, Shanda Keller of Maryville, plans to meet them at the Ohio stopover. Other family and friends will greet them at most of the other stops. Elizabeth Keller’s grandfather, Barney Evans, was in the Air National Guard in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The women’s sponsors include Kelmont Farms Inc., Murfreesboro Aviation, Xpress Aircraft Maintenance, Pet Goat Farm, Open Roads Media and the MTSU aerospace department.
MTSU has more than 240 combined undergraduate and graduate programs, and the Department of Aerospace is one of 11 in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. For more information, call 615-898-2788.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)