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Female Pilots Test Their Wings, Mettle

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Patent attorney Kelly Burris of Ann Arbor, Mich., recalls "pure joy, excitement and happiness" when she and Seattle resident Erin Recke won last summer's all-female Air Race Classic after four intense days of piloting.

She also recalls sweating a lot, because, in an effort to get an edge on her competitors, she kept cockpit vents closed to curtail drag on her 1962 Beechcraft Debonair plane.

Burris, 45, a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight who donated funds from last year's victory to the medical transport charity, was planning to be at it again this morning, joining more than 100 female pilots from across the USA in the 34th annual Air Race Classic. The race spanning approximately 2,000 miles starts here and is scheduled to end Friday in Frederick, Md.

The race will take the aviators in 125-to-600-horsepower, fixed-wing aircraft over 11 states, with stops in seven cities before ending in Frederick, says Terry Carbonell, a licensed pilot and secretary for Air Race Classic, the race's Florida-based non-profit sponsor that promotes women in aviation.

Contestants range from students in their early 20s to 92-year-old Ruby Wine Sheldon of Phoenix, a retired flight instructor and charter pilot who in 2009 was inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame.

The women will compete for $15,000 in total prize money, with purses awarded to the winner of each leg and $5,000 to the overall winner, Carbonell says.

Pilots pay a fee to enter the Air Race Classic and have four days - flying only in daylight and in clear weather - to reach Frederick. Two-women and three-women teams compete. Each plane is assigned a handicap speed, and teams try to taxi as fast as possible above that speed, Carbonell says.

Visitor bureaus, hotels, airports and other businesses give money and in-kind donations, she says.

"The money this area is getting back in hotel room nights and fuel sales are well worth it," says Victoria Moreland, spokeswoman for the Lee County Port Authority in Fort Myers, which she says chipped in $10,000, plus in-house advertising, marketing and design services.

A big part of the race's goal is to promote aviation, which has declined in recent years. According to a Federal Aviation Administration forecast, the number of student pilots will total 69,050 in 2011, down from 2010's estimate of 72,280, spokesman Hank Price says.

By comparison, there were 93,064 in 2000, FAA figures show.

"We have a declining pilot population in this country," says Rob Mark, pilot and editor of the Chicago-based jetwhine.com blog.

Events such as the Air Race Classic "demonstrate the adventure of flying and the intrinsic value of having an airport in your community," Mark says.

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