Sierra Hardwick

Auburn University senior Sierra Hardwick talks about competing in the Air Race Classic

Fifty-one flight teams consisting of 113 women pilots from across the United States will compete in the Air Race Classic (ARC) — a 2,538-mile, 10-leg race starting in Jackson, Tennessee and ending in Welland, Ontario in Canada.

The race has been held since 1929 and has been the epicenter of women’s air racing ever since. Famous pilot Amelia Earhart participated in the event 90 years ago, and today, and pilots from Auburn University’s aviation program will look to follow in her footsteps.

Auburn University will be among the 15 colleges and universities competing in the event — which accepts pilots between the ages of 17 and 90 — and will be the only university to send two teams to the ARC.

The two teams— War Eagle Women–Blue and War Eagle Women–Orange — will be piloted by Auburn graduate Caitlyn Miller and senior Sierra Hardwick while also being co-piloted by graduates Kendall Higdon and Mattie Mckenna, respectively.

“I think it’s amazing. I think we both definitely take on that role pretty seriously and just want to set a good example. Definitely going to try and do a clean race, so no penalties and going out there and representing Auburn well — showing that we’re not only competitive as a football school but also as an aviation program,” said Higdon, who participated in the race two years ago.

Last year, Auburn placed third collegiately and ninth out of 77 teams. This year, the teams are looking to improve upon that mark.

“We’ve decided to look at all the different stops and the different routes — We’re trying to figure out if there’s any areas that we’re going to have to fly over that could pose a challenge. … We’ve tried to discuss what challenges we’ll have and how to prepare and just not be as tired during the race,” Hardwick said.

Both teams will be flying Cessna Skyhawk 172S Nav III’s — aircraft all four pilots have considerable experience with.

“I do know that you need to have a lot of experience, like flying your particular aircraft. Earlier this month we had to do a handicapped flight where they test what our best speed is in this aircraft and that’s what we’re racing against. So, just preparing for that and making sure you have all your right documents and you practice flying at full throttle, trying to obtain your best speed,” Hardwick said.

Having two teams in the competition is thanks to the generosity of university donors, so entering their third year competing, Auburn University and the pilots competing will have a different experience than most.

“It’s awesome to have two extra people with us this year, another team. It just means to us that the females in this industry are growing exponentially and that we’re being represented and they’re accommodating us and we’re getting to show that we’re just as good as the men in this men’s world,” McKenna said. “So, it’s really exciting to be a part of that and to be paving the way for Auburn Aviation and women in this industry.”

Auburn, the only SEC school with a flight program, has been a leader among collegiate aviation for more than 75 years. With more than 4,000 aviation alumni, the university’s goal is clear.

“We are very dedicated to train up the next generation of pilots and again, we’re grateful to our donors for supporting the second team because the more experience that we can give our students, the better off we are as a program as a whole,” said Auburn University Aviation Center Director Bill Hutto.

The same sentiment was echoed by College of Liberal Arts Dean Joseph Aistrup.

“What I like about it is not just the learning opportunities that are provided but it really does say something about Auburn and its commitment to the aviation industry and to pilot training,” he said. “By having two teams, it says that we are committed to not just pilot training but to our students, to women and to making sure the next generation of pilots are prepared for that next step of being on the left-hand side of that cockpit.”

90 years after Earhart did the same, Miller, Higdon, Hardwick and McKenna are competing in the Air Race Classic. The four pilots will have a chance to represent Auburn University as well as one of the best aviation programs in the country alongside fellow women in their field.

Teams will depart from McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport in Jackson at 8 a.m. on June 18 and the race will end June 21.

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