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Calhoun County Air Center's Dianna Stanger is off to races

By Elena Watts
June 17, 2013 at 1:17 a.m.

Joyce Wilson, of Cuthand, prepares the Cirrus SR22 plane for take off at the Calhoun County Airport in Port Lavaca. Wilson and Stanger are taking part in the Air Race Classic, which is an all-woman pilot four-day race between Pasco, Wash., and Fayetteville, Ark. They said the best part about competing is all the places they get to fly over, which they normally wouldn't see. "But we're not in it for fun, we're in it to win." Wilson said. Last year Stanger won the race and Wilson has been in the top 10 for three years.

When Dianna Stanger lived on an island in the Bahamas, the only way to get her groceries home was by boat.

But her eggs kept breaking.

"I was tired of having scrambled eggs when I got home," she said.

So she learned to fly a helicopter.

Stanger, 51, who has since moved to a 7,000-acre ranch in Port Lavaca, later learned to fly airplanes.

She acquired a Cirrus SR22, a low-wing, high-performance single-engine aircraft, and a Hawker Premier jet.

When she's not running the Calhoun County Air Center and two flight classes, she helps her husband raise 1,330 head of Brangus cattle.

She is competing in the Air Race Classic with teammate Joyce Wilson, 52, of the northeast Texas community of Cuthand. Their team is called XXtreme AviatriXX.

Wilson began flying when she lived in West Virginia for a faster commute to her Texas ranch. She lives on the Circle WC Ranch with her husband, who owns a high-end firearms manufacturing company. She manages the International Defensive Pistol Association.

The all-women, four-day, cross-country race starts in Pasco, Wash., on Tuesday with nine stops en route to the finish in Fayetteville, Ark.

Since 1929, the race has been called the First Women's Air Derby, the All Women's Transcontinental Air Race and, unofficially, the Powder Puff Derby.

"It's the only race of its kind; there's not another race like it," Stanger said. "I wish every woman could do it."

Only 6 percent of pilots are women, and flying makes them more assertive, she said.

"It's really a control issue, and if you don't take charge and do things in a way you feel is safe in an airplane, you're just not going to be flying very long," Stanger said.

In training, pilots are put in situations called emergency maneuvers.

"Flying has made me a much stronger person," Wilson said. "You always have to be looking for a place to land. If a fan quits, you've got to do something with the airplane. You can't pull over to the side of the air."

Pilots cannot freeze up, pull over and cry, Stanger said. That just does not work.

Wilson agreed.

"I can handle other life situations just by knowing that sometimes you have to aviate first," Wilson said.

As Stanger and Wilson lifted off from the Calhoun County Air Center, they had more than one mission in mind.

On their way to the Evergreen State, they landed Stanger's Cirrus SR-22 in Sugar Land to pick up Gaylen Shoemaker, a patient undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to take him to Olathe, Kan. The ground crew then drove him and his wife, Cecile, to their home in Kansas City, Mo.

The couple, which could not make the nearly 800-mile drive, has flown several trips with the nonprofit organization Angel Flights.

Stanger, a board member, has been involved with the organization since 2001, while this was Wilson's first official mission.

"It is a way to practice flying, keep my pilot's license current and help others at the same time," Stanger said. "You come away, and they are so grateful that someone was there for them at a time when they needed it the most."

Last year, 700 pilots in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico completed 4,000 flights that cost an average of $1,000 each. Since its inception in 1991, Angel Flights South Central has provided free transportation to the tune of $35 million for more than 30,000 patients in need of critical medical care not available to them locally.

Stanger recalled a young boy named Kevin from Nacogdoches who she transported years earlier. She did not realize the cancer had affected the sight portion of his brain until he could not see the helicopter she parked in front of his house. As she belted him in for the flight, he told her that his brother was very sick.

"Here's a little boy with cancer of the brain, and he didn't live much longer after that, worried because his brother had allergies," Stanger said. "Probably the most special flight I ever had. He was the sweetest little boy."

Cancer patients are common passengers, and M.D. Anderson in Houston is a popular destination. For 15 years, Angel Flights has worked closely with the social workers at the cancer center to ensure they provide flights for those who need them most. The organization also transports many newborns and infants whose immune systems are fragile and whose lungs are not ready for pressurized aircraft.

"It's a great way to give back to the community," Wilson said. "Obviously flying is fairly expensive and not something everyone can do. I've been fortunate enough to fly, so this is a way to help somebody who needs some help."

Stanger and Wilson hoped to transport additional patients each leg of their flight to the race in Washington.

This is Stanger's third year to compete. She won last year with teammate Victoria Holt.

Wilson placed in the top 10 - second, third and seventh - all three years she has raced.

Teams are comprised of at least two pilots, and 14 of the 47 teams are collegiate this year.

"To be in a room with 100 other women pilots is just something I never had experienced," Stanger said. "Usually when I go out to an airport, I'm the only female there."

Experience ranges from university students somewhat new to aviation to corporate aircraft pilots with thousands of flying hours under their belts. Teams participate in either competition or non-competition classes. Teams not competing might have airplanes that do not qualify per race rules - at least 100 horsepower and no more than 600. Some might race simply for education and experience, and still others might fly for the sheer pleasure.

"We want to win," Wilson said. "We have a little more of that hard estrogen."

The race is flown during daylight hours by visual flight rules, which means the pilots must be able to see around their airplanes at all times. They cannot fly through clouds. The rule was established to avoid risks, such as flying through storm clouds, which competitive types might take to win.

Stanger and Wilson are competitive but not stupid.

"We're women, so we're going to make smarter decisions," Stanger said. "It's not the WWF where we bump them out of the way with a wing - we're much more civilized."

Flying is inherently dangerous, like walking across a street.

"We're all safety conscious," Wilson said. "Nobody wants to win this race bad enough to jeopardize someone else's life."

The racecourse, which changes every year, takes the pilots to such stops as Spearfish, S.D., that they might not make otherwise, Stanger said.

This year's challenge, other than the ever-present weather, is navigating the Rocky Mountain range. The pilots strive for a straight line, which is always the shortest distance between two points, but factors such as clouds and mountains get in the way.

At 310 horsepower, Stanger's airplane is the second fastest in the race and can reach altitudes from 250 feet to 17,500 feet above ground level. She and Wilson can compare the winds for every flight level available and strategize.

The Cessna 172 and 182 airplanes, which are common in the race, have a useful service ceiling of about 1,400 feet. They cannot reach the upper level winds because it would take them three days to get there, Wilson said. Unable to climb over mountaintops, they must go around them. They also keep moving to finish the race in the allotted time, which leaves them with less maneuverability.

"Dianna's plane is so much more technologically advanced that we have a lot more flexibility in what we can do," Wilson said. "We should be able to keep our straight line and go right up and right down over the mountaintops."

Last year, Stanger's airplane's exceptional speed allowed her team to sit on the ground for a day and a half waiting for the winds to change and still win.

"The toughest part was sitting on the ground and listening to everybody fly over, wondering if we were the smart ones or they were," Stanger said. "It was terrible."

The clock ticks as airplanes are forced to make diversions around clouds and mountaintops. Penalties put time on the clock, too. Airplane wings must be level a mile before the airport, landing lights must be on and radio calls must be made. The pilots are required to advise the airport at certain stages along their approaches because two airplanes might arrive at the same time.

"If you don't make that call, it could be very dangerous," Wilson said. "Sometimes you won't see the other airplane because it's behind you or above your wing."

At flybys, the airplanes fly the entire length of the runways at 200 to 250 feet above ground level. Officials sit at timing lines recording scores for each leg of the race. The pilots either circle back and land or continue to the next stop. Factors such as fuel and weather determine their decisions.

"It's nerve-racking until the launch, and then everything goes away and you eye in on what you need to do," Stanger said.

It changes your whole life, Wilson said.



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