Plane Jane

(Photos: Madeline Gray)

Competing in a four-day, women-only transcontinental air race, Carol Scanlon-Goldberg,
MS '83, follows a path plied by some of history's greatest aviatrixes.

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By Matthew Stoss


Carol Scanlon-Goldberg, MS '83, has more than 60 books about flying.

There's Flight of Passage and Sagittarius Rising, Flying South: A Pilot's Journey and Wind, Sand and Stars. And then there's Daughter of the Air. Published in 1999, it's a biography of Cornelia Fort, a pilot during World War II in the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and likely the first American pilot to see Japanese Zeros on their way to Pearl Harbor. In 1943 at age 24, Ms. Fort became the first U.S. female pilot killed on active duty.

Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg is a pilot, too, ever since she paid $27 in June 1994 to pass an off-day in Lubbock, Texas, sitting left seat in a prop plane 1,500 feet above the cradle of Buddy Holly.

She says she struggles to describe the transcendentalism of being a flyer—"I'm not a poet. There are so many people that have such gorgeous quotes, but I'm not one of them"—but, really, she's not so bereft of poetry.

"It's like," Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg says, "you're flying in the hands of God."

Still, she prefers the words of Cornelia Fort.

"I loved the sky and the planes, and yet, best of all, I loved flying," Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg reads from Daugher of the Air. "I loved it best perhaps because it taught me utter self-sufficiency, the ability to remove oneself beyond the keep of anyone at all, and in doing so, it taught me what was of value and what was not."

This past June, nearly 21 years from her first flying lesson, Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg competed in the Air Race Classic, a women-only, 2,400-mile transcontinental prop plane derby founded in 1929 by women like Ms. Fort, those first, beatified aviatrixes—Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden and Amelia Earhart.

"They were out to inspire other women and to prove that not only men could do challenges, but women could do challenges, too—and survive," Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg says. "To be part of that history was just amazing." Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg and her friend and teammate, Tamra Sheffman, finished 40th out of 54 teams, flying a Cessna 182P. The race started in Fredericksburg, Va., and finished in Fairhope, Ala.

For the slight, 70-year-old Ms. Scanlon- Goldberg, a cross-country air race was just something that you do.

Born at an Army airfield in Michigan, she grew up in North Jersey, the daughter of a World War II bomber pilot, reading adventure novels and riding horses while her classmates went to Friday night football games.

Since retiring in 2005 to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her husband and fellow pilot, Donald Goldberg, after a 22-year career as a nursing home administrator in southern California, Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg has traveled to Cambodia, India, Norway, Russia, Sweden and all over Europe. She bussed the Blarney Stone in Ireland and rode an elephant in Sri Lanka. ("An elephant is an amazing creature," she says. "Have you ridden one lately?")

A lifelong equestrian and former barrel racer, Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg once faced down a Brahman bull, as Hemingway might a male lion, while retrieving a lost earring in a rodeo arena. Then there was the time she snorkeled (accidentally) with a bull shark in the Bahamas.

"I was over a reef, and everyone else swam back to the boat, and I didn't pay attention until I looked up and no one else was there except for myself and this gentleman swimming underneath," Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg says. "That was a little too close for comfort. I guess he wasn't hungry."

As a female pilot, her chemistry all molecules of zest and idealism, she has eyed the ARC for two decades.

That first Women's Air Derby, also known as the Powder Puff Derby, was a seminal moment for female aviators. The inaugural race, run from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland, had a 20-woman field and featured a pantheon of firstgeneration female flyers. Ms. Earhart was the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean. Ms. Barnes was the first female Hollywood stunt pilot. Ms. Thaden won the 1936 Bendix Transcontinental Air Race in its first-ever co-ed running.

"Men were playing an important role in aviation at the time, setting records and coming up with new aircraft, and the women weren't really allowed to race with the men," says Dianna Stanger, director of the Air Race Classic, two-time ARC winner and fighter jet owner. (Her Aero L-39 Albatros still has the missile-fire switch but, for legal reasons, is unarmed). "Some of the earlier racers that you'll see from the 1929 Powder Puff are pretty aggressive women, and they decided if they weren't allowed to play with the men, they'd make their own race. And that's what they did."

The purpose of the race—held on and off since its inception and every year since 1977, when it was renamed the Air Race Classic— is the same as 1929: advocate, encourage and promote women in aviation.

Modern racers, Ms. Stanger says, know the history and what the first derbies meant to their forebears—one of whom, 29-year-old Marvel Crosson, died in the 1929 race when her plane crashed in the Arizona desert—and what it still means to the latter-day aviatrixes, especially when, according to 2013 Federal Aviation Administration data (the most recent available), only 6.6 percent of the 599,086 licensed U.S. pilots are female.

Last summer, Carol Scanlon-Goldberg, MS '83, completed a 2,400-mile air race, of which Amelia Earhart is an alum.

"When I was young, there were things I couldn't do," Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg says. "When I was doing my bachelor's program, I remember, I always liked to volunteer for things, and I ended up being in charge of the advertising committee at Fairleigh Dickinson [University]—or the club. But because I was a female in the '60s, I wasn't allowed to go to the conventions because women weren't allowed. And then you see these young women [in the ARC]. I mean, the whole world has opened up."

The Air Race Classic, handicapped by plane and skill level so everyone has a chance to win, is open to all female pilots. Racers supply their own planes, the fastest of which go about 200 mph. It costs about $10,000 for the 10-day event, but teams can get sponsors. Four days are for racing. The other six are for safety courses, briefings and debriefings.

The teams plan their own routes and use modern avionics, unlike the early racers who consulted charts in lieu of iPads. The race is designed to make competitors navigate all terrains and altitudes, going as low as 200 feet and as high 18,000, the maximum allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Any higher and racers would have to file flight plans and worry about oxygen, pressurizing cabins and colliding with jet airliners.

Most importantly, the race just helps women fly.

"I think the early participants would be happy with what it's become," says Ms. Stanger.

Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg thinks so, too, but she, always careful of language, stops at calling herself an aviatrix. To her, it's an old word, aged by honor and akin to saint.

"I think of an aviatrix as Amelia Earhart, as Pancho Barnes, as the amazing women during World War II that ferried pilots to airplanes," Ms. Scanlon-Goldberg says. "To me, they are the aviatrixes. They're the ones that had set out and done so many wonderful things that the rest of us only dream of. So I just think of myself as normal, everyday pilot who's a female, who loves to fly."

A daughter of the air.

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