The only trouble with the race is its title. In this day and liberated age, Powder Puff Derby seems a touch too contrived and cute for such a serious challenge. Still, the country's foremost women pilots are stuck with it by tradition and copyright, and away they went last week, 184 competitors on a 2,543-mile transcontinental dash that proved to be anything but puffy.
This year's Derby brought 104 planes to the starting line at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif. The pilots—ranging from young daughters to seasoned grandmas—came from as far afield as Australia, South Africa and West Germany. And there was not a won't-some-body-help-poor-little-old-me posture in the bunch.
With each plane rated on a mile-per-hour basis, the winner is the flyer who crosses the continent with the largest margin over handicap. Thus, a 150-hp single-engine Cessna 172 (handicap 119 mph) could beat a 320-hp twin-engine Piper Comanche (handicap 187 mph) by averaging, say, 150 mph (plus 31) to the Comanche's 200 mph (plus 13).
"I suppose there are a few bubble-heads among us," said Trina Jarish, a 31-year-old flight instructor from Costa Mesa, Calif., before the Derby started, "but at least 30 of the planes in this thing are potential winners. The gals who fly them work very hard at winning. It's not the first prize of $5,000 they're after; they love the competition and they're good at it. Racing against them, you can't make mistakes."
Jarish, who was in her sixth Derby, knows well what mistakes can mean. A slip at the finish line cost her the championship in 1970. Leading the race, she zoomed down at Bristol, Pa., only to discover that she had crossed above the wrong runway, the rough equivalent of missing a buoy in yacht racing. She had to circle back to make the correct crossing, lost a precious minute and was dropped to third behind winners Margaret Mead (no, not the anthropologist) and Susan Oliver (yes, the actress).
"The toughest part of the whole race is deciding when to fly and when to wait," said competitor Gini Richardson. "Finding a good tail wind and riding along with it is the secret." And there were plenty of opportunities to make such spot decisions this year. Between Carlsbad and the finish line at Elmira, N.Y. there were eight timing checkpoints, three of which were must stops at which all planes had to land, even if only for a short break. The planes also were restricted to flying between sunrise and sunset and could set down for the night only at designated fields.
For Jarish, last week's race almost started out the way 1970 had ended. On the opening leg between Carlsbad and Prescott, Ariz. she made a mistake in math, calculating that she was going only 14 mph over handicap when she was actually cruising 24 mph over. "My speed seemed too slow, so I thought it better to land and wait for faster tail winds," she said later. "When I found out the truth, it was too late to go on and make Albuquerque by sunset. The ones who made it there picked up good tail winds the second day. And I got almost none."
But then she came on strong. With faultless addition and winds that were obviously good enough, she brought her Beechcraft Bonanza into Elmira by the afternoon of the third day with a figure of plus 16.138 over her 184-mph handicap. None of the 23 other soloists in the field could match that mark, and her winning finish also was good enough for a fourth-place position overall.
A couple of other Powder Puffers had more adventurous trips. Approaching Albuquerque in her Piper Cherokee, Shirley Weinhardt, a youthful-looking grandmother from Williamsport, Pa., had a fuel-tank switch failure. The engine quit and soloist Weinhardt made a landing atop a 1,100-foot mesa, buckling the nosewheel and putting a few dents in the Cherokee, but none in herself.
Heading into Waterloo, Iowa, Wanda Cummings and co-pilot Ava Carmichael ran out of fuel and landed in a cornfield four miles short of the airport. The farmer rushed out and thanked the flyers for devastating his $2-a-bushel corn instead of a nearby field of soybeans, which are selling for $7.
Meanwhile, overall winners Marian Burke and co-pilot Ruth Hildebrand also got just the right huffs and puffs from the wind on the coast-to-coast trail. On the morning of the fourth day they were still in Topeka, 1,246 miles from the finish line. They winged away five minutes after sunrise, covered the distance in one long day and won by just over 19 mph.
But despite the long grind, the race still managed to come down to a final feminine twist. Each of the two-woman teams, wearing matching flight costumes, would step out of their aircraft in Elmira looking quite splendid in everything from orange hot pants to Robin Hood miniskirt outfits in bright green silk and velvet. It was recognized as an important moment. How important? Marjory Robbins of Los Angeles and Shirley Thorn of La Canada, Calif. had pasted a card with the code word GUMPL on their dashboard as a checklist reminder of what to do when coming in for a landing. The first four letters concerned gas tanks, undercarriage, fuel mixture and propeller pitch. The final letter stood for "put on your lipstick." Well, a few such dainty touches are permissible. Especially in an event that clings to a name like Powder Puff Derby.