Finding her friendly skies


On a stifling hot afternoon, Carolyn Van Newkirk puts on a visor - yellow, with little wooden airplanes glued to its wide brim - and rises on her tiptoes to wax her airplane.

The grandmother, school principal and licensed pilot wants the Cessna 182P Skylane to be in top condition - for good reason. Starting today, she's competing in what is billed as the only all-female transcontinental air race in the United States.

When Van Newkirk, longtime principal of the Lower School at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore County, takes off from West Lafayette, Ind., it will mark her 13th appearance in the Air Race Classic.

And while her best finish is 19th place, Van Newkirk always has beaten the handicap assigned to her airplane by race organizers, meaning she flew faster than expected.

"I resign myself that I'm not going to win, but I'd certainly like to be in the top 10 at some time," she said. "It's the challenge of it."

Van Newkirk began flying on a whim 15 years ago, when a friend was learning to fly. Now it has become her full-fledged hobby, to the point where, she says, she took out a loan two years ago to buy a new engine.

"It's something you love with a passion or you don't love at all," she said.

Her enthusiasm toward her pupils is just as evident, according to parents. "She's very well in tune with kids, families and what's going on in the classrooms," said Lois Cohen, a former president of Beth Tfiloh's Parent Association, whose son is entering the fourth grade. "There's nothing she doesn't know about the school."

Aviation and education mix easily for Van Newkirk, who presides over 300 pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade. In her office at the school's Glyndon campus, a small, chalkboard-like sign that reads, "Pilots are plane people with a special air about them," sits on a shelf. Miniature airplanes, including one made from Coke cans, blend with drawings by pupils.

Enjoying the variety

Van Newkirk has been at the Lower School for 23 years, two years as an assistant principal and the past 21 years as principal, and sees similarities between flying a plane and running a school. Most prominent is the variety that both bring.

"Every landing is different and every day running a school is different, as many years as I've done it," she said.

Van Newkirk will happily take any of her pupils on a flight, provided they can get to York Airport in Pennsylvania and sign a waiver. She also talks about flying and airplanes at school.

That's fine with her pupils' parents. "I think it's great she has diverse interests." said Natalie Chason, whose daughter is going into third grade and whose two older children went through the Lower School.

Van Newkirk, who has two children and three grandchildren, lives in York with her husband, Jack. She declined to give her age. She maintains her 33-year-old, 230-horsepower, black-and-yellow-striped airplane in a hangar at York Airport.

For the four days of the 2,436-mile Air Race Classic, 41 teams of at least two people are to fly over eight airports across the central United States. The airplanes must execute low-pass flybys at each airport, zooming across a designated spot where timers clock the completion of a leg.

The pilots are on their own to determine the quickest way to reach all eight airports during daytime flying. At the end of the day, teams land at the closest airport and find lodging for the night. They must cross the finish line at the airport in Frankfort, Ind., by 5 p.m. Friday.

"The four days you're in the race you think of nothing but flying the race," Van Newkirk said. "We don't know where we're going to sleep at night, and food is unimportant."

With several types of airplanes in the field, each team competes against a handicap based on its airplane's weight and horsepower. The winning team, the one that scores the highest over its handicap, takes home $5,000.

Van Newkirk and her co-pilot, Beverly Weintraub, flew to Indiana on Friday. During the race, they will pore over weather reports, seeking the optimal altitude and winds. Communication will be crucial because it is the first time the two have raced together.

Participants in the race come from across the country, and range in age from teenage passengers to a group of pilots known as the "Eighties Ladies," said Judy Bolkema-Tokar, a participant and president of the Air Race Classic (a successor to the all-female "Powder Puff Derby"), now in its 29th year. When they are not racing, the women are airline pilots, schoolteachers, nurses, bank managers, retirees and military personnel on leave, she said.

Race participants are part of the small subset of women pilots. In 2003, less than 6 percent of the nearly 124,000 licensed commercial pilots in the United States were female, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Recruiting new pilots

The race is a flying advertisement for potential female pilots, Bolkema-Tokar said. "There's a message that has to get out to our daughters, our granddaughters and our great-granddaughters: Women can fly. The plane doesn't care who is flying it."

Van Newkirk looks at home in the small cockpit of her airplane, describing every gauge, knob and switch, looking up only to identify planes flying overhead.

While airborne, Van Newkirk said, she constantly monitors all the controls, checking speed, altitude, position, weather and engine temperature, while communicating via radio with airports or other planes.

She said she does not have time to enjoy the view. "You're always looking at something on the dash," she said. "You don't have time to relax."

Only upon landing does Van Newkirk get what she describes as a "feeling of 'wow.'"

"The feeling is when you come back and land and have a good landing," she said. "Then you get the warm fuzzies."

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