By Neil Macdougall
August, 1975, Canadian Aviation
Twice a year, a hundred or so female pilots fling themselves across the continent in two great races. And the Powder Puff and Angel Derbies are so fiercely contested that winners may be only seconds apart after 10 hours’ flying. Always an international race, the Angel Derby has started or ended in Canada 10 times. Yet in 25 years, it’s been won by a non-U.S. resident only once: by Margaret Carson of Ottawa in 1951.
This year’s race started from Hamilton, Ontario in May and zig-zagged 1,428.9 miles to Titusville, Florida. Of the 55 entries, only five flew solo. Canada was represented by four crews: Lorna de Blicquy and Betty Jane Schermerhorn of Ottawa in a Cessna Cardinal RG; Lois Apperley and Daphne Schiff of Toronto in a Cessna 172; J. Gean Hemming and Felicity McKendry of Ottawa in a Cessna 172; and Patricia Judges and Simone Breukel of Toronto in a Cessna 310.
A twin crew estimated their expenses, including aircraft rental and the $100 entry fee, at $2,000. Clearly, the first prize of $3,000 was not the attraction.
In the early days, handicaps were set by race officials flying with contestants who’d sometimes put a little flap down to make their plane seem slower. Now there are 10 pages of rules and handicaps and are published in advance. “It’s no use entering a plane which can’t do 20 mph better than the handicap,” said one contestant. “I rented five Cessnas before I found a suitable one.”
Betty Dodds and Bonnie Quenzler timed takeoffs on their two Cherokee 180s. To eliminate the effect of pilot technique, they took turns flying. They found one Cherokee took off in one second less than the other. That’s the plane they flew to sixth place.
At pre-race functions, competitors looked with awe and envy at four-time winner Judy Wagner as the one to beat. The other competitors had enough ATRs, instrument instructors’ ratings and just plain talent to re-staff Airtransit Canada. Naïve males who asked about winning techniques met platitudes, evasion or sharp questions such as, “Is your wife a contestant?”
“They don’t tell you anything,” said Lois Apperley. “They’ve got their minds on just one thing, and they fly full throttle all the way. Some even have their own weather service.”
“I used to wonder why they don’t have clinics for beginners,” said Betty Dodds. “Now that I’ve learned a few tricks myself, I’m not sure I’d want to give that knowledge away.”
One crew tried to “psych” the competition, their plane carried a sign, “Follow us and come second.” A more popular technique was leaving any but essential baggage behind. Elizabeth Lane escorted 2,000 lb. of left luggage South. She was one of dozens of volunteer Canadians under the direction of Start Chairman Alicia Gooch.
To keep all aircraft to the same route, flypasts were required for identification every 250 miles or so. At London, Ontario, the run-in was marked by a green barn with a red roof on the 100° radial of the VOR. There turned out to be two such barns, causing flypasts on each side of the tower. One contestant, unwilling to lose time climbing, flew most of the route at 200 ft. A motorcyclist, who kept turning to watch her overtake him, zoomed into a ditch. Another pilot refuelled with 37 gallons, when her usable capacity was 38.
At Titusville, planes of the same type were parked together so any modifications could be spotted. Fuel was sampled, and the ‘Angels’ paraded through the city streets. Hearts fluttered and pulses raced as the race results were posted, revised, re-revised and revised again. One girl was given a prize, interviewed and photographed, only to have it taken away in the early morning hours.
But that didn’t stop most from having a good time. As Pat Judges put it, “I enjoyed it thoroughly. Flying with such capable girls makes you want to become more proficient. The hospitality was great, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
This article originally appeared in the August, 1975 edition of Canadian Aviation magazine. The picture is from the book “No Place for a Lady” by Shirley Render and is of two Canadian teams on their way to the race in 1951. From the left are Dorothy Rungeling, Lorna Bray (de Blicquy), Betty McCanse and Margaret Carson.