In 1929, 20 pilots took to the skies for the first-ever Women’s Air Derby, an all-female, cross-country air race. On June 15, three Santa Barbara women — Jessie Davidson, Topaz Grabman, and Aravni Khachikians — will fly cross-country to compete in the 2015 version of what’s now known as the Air Race Classic, held June 22-25. But first place isn’t the only destination on their radar.
Calling themselves the Above All Fly Girls, the trio will travel from Santa Barbara to the starting line in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to its finish in Fairhope, Alabama, and back, stopping en route at multiple Girls Inc. clubs to educate young girls about careers in flying. In a field where less than 7 percent of pilots are female, the Above All girls hope their journey — part roadless road trip, part race, part educational tour — will inspire women nationwide to achieve their own lofty dreams.
The three were first inspired to fly the race in December of last year, when Shawn Sullivan, owner of Above All Aviation, recommended they join. As passionate recreational flyers with professional ambitions, the three seized the chance to compete in the race, which would test their skills with long distances, fuel limitations, and foreign weather systems. “I’ve dealt with a marine layer before, but never a thunderstorm,” Davidson said, who, like her fellow Fly Girls, welcomes the thrill of the unseen and unknown.
Yet when they first enlisted, the biggest unknown of all — how to cover the $11,000 costs of racing fees, fuel, and accommodations — loomed large on the horizon. The trio staged a fundraiser on April 11, and the community matched their enthusiasm, covering all costs within a single day. Their flight school provided an essential lift, donating a Cessna 182, equipped with a Garmin 696 GPS system donated by Avionics & Maintenance West. “It has brought our community together, and we really are thankful,” Grabman said.
On April 29, the three visited the Girls Inc. in Goleta, where they allowed young girls to test cockpit instruments, try out a flight simulator, and race paper airplanes. They’ll do similar stops along their route, encouraging young minds to pursue their ambitions. “There’s strength in being visible as women in aviation,” said Davidson, who also directed her own documentary, Our Piece of the Sky, about female pilots. “It’s becoming more real to us that we can have an impact.” Added Grabman, “We’ve accomplished our dreams in aviation, and we want other women to accomplish their dreams, too.”
Until they leave in a few weeks, the three are training by trading roles between pilot, copilot, and navigator in anticipation of spending two full weeks in their plane, N411BP, which they affectionately refer to as Bravo Papa. “Ideally, the pilot becomes part of the machine; there aren’t three of us, there are four,” says Khachikians.
In the focused peace of airspace, the three women have all found both personal solace and a larger purpose. Davidson sees their participation in the race as a unique “part of the human experience,” both as women and as pilots of machines only a hundred years in human hands. Khachikians agreed. “You’re in history without even realizing it; carrying that torch is humbling,” she said.
When they take off from Santa Barbara on June 15 to compete for their own piece of the sky, they may very well light more torches along the way.