Getting along is a matter of life and death for Marge Thayer and Helen Beulen.
"You’re attached at the hip for four days in an airplane, so you better like each other or somebody will be dead," says Beulen, 43, of Mesa.
Tomorrow the two women will climb into the tiny cockpit of Thayer’s Cessna airplane and begin a 35-hour odyssey to win the 29th annual Air Race Classic, a 2,436-mile, women-only race that begins and ends at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind.
Most men didn’t take the first Women’s Air Derby too seriously when it began in 1929; cowboy star Will Rogers dubbed it the "Powder Puff Derby" even though flying legends like Amelia Earhart and Louise Thaden were among the 20 pilots who raced from Santa Monica, Calif., to Cleveland.
But Rogers’ nickname made the race famous and drew attention to women in aviation, says Kathy Walton, a pilot and spokeswoman for the Air Race Classic, the name the race acquired in 1977.
The race is scored on the handicap system, like golf, so the fastest plane isn’t guaranteed victory. The pilots have four days to reach the end and must race in daylight hours. Each leg is about 280 to 320 miles long, and there are seven stops along the way. Next year, the race will start at Falcon Field Municipal Airport in Mesa.
Thayer, who won in 1989 and 1995 with former partner Ruby Sheldon, plans to win again this year.
"We’re going to do one leg perfectly each time, with no distractions," says Thayer. "When you’ve got two legs to go and you’re at the top of the pack, that’s when the pressure is on."
Some women try to do more than two legs at a stretch, thinking it will save them time and rack up points.
"That’s when you do something stupid," says Beulen. "It doesn’t take much to lose this race."
Thayer, who has the most flying experience of the two, took her first lesson in 1969. At the time, her second husband had children living in Washington state, and the couple drove to see them so often that getting a plane made more sense.
But her husband was "petrified of flying," says Thayer. "He could do everything except land. On final approach he’d just throw up his hands." So she became the pilot of the family — which she said caused so much tension the couple divorced.
She soon married another pilot, Ronald Thayer; the two spent their years flying all over the world until he died five years ago.
Beulen was 15 when she sat in a cockpit for the first time, but she didn’t get a pilot’s license until she was 28. Now she’s a flight instructor and pilot for a trucking and construction company.
Although the women have been friends for 15 years, they didn’t start flying together until three years ago, when Air Race Classic organizers asked older pilots to pair up with the next generation of air racers to keep the race going.
"I always did like Helen," says Thayer, the pilot. "I knew she was laid-back and easygoing. You really need to pick and choose someone you are going to be compatible with."
Beulen, the navigator, agrees. "We’ve seen young girls start and split up before the race is over, and it’s such a shame."
Flying requires the pilots to be alert, but the race takes it up a notch, so distractions aren’t allowed in the cockpit. Thayer, a smoker, won’t light up during the race, although she admitted she’ll smoke on the flight to Purdue.
Three years of racing have forged a deep bond of trust between the women that goes beyond ordinary friendship.
"I’d put my life in her hands in a heartbeat," says Thayer.
"And vice versa," says Beulen.