2004 Palms to Pines

This story about racers in the 2004 Palms to Pines air race originally appeared in the Merced Sun Star. It is reprinted here with permission from the author. Sun-Star photos by Marci Stenberg. Many of the pilots featured in this story are members of the Santa Clara Valley 99s.

Dateline: August 7, 2004

Fliers make Merced stop

Female pilots on annual race through state

By Doane Yawger

Grace Crittendan of Cayucos does a flyby as she takes off for Red Bluff from the Merced airport on Friday during the 2004 Palms to Pines Air Race
Merced Tower Fly-By
Pat Gregory and about 20 of her friends dropped into Merced for lunch and a tank of gas Friday — sharing their love of aviation during the annual Palm to Pines air race.

Members of the International Organization of Women Pilots touched down briefly at Merced Municipal Airport during the first leg of an annual competition that began in Santa Monica and stopped in Red Bluff for the evening. The event winds up today in Bend, Ore.

“There’s nothing better than flying; I love it,” said Valerie Berg of San Diego. This being her first time participating in the Palms to Pines race, the 29-year-old flight instructor, who has logged 3,000 hours in the air, called the experience fabulous.

The association, known more informally as the 99s, has been conducting the race for about 20 years. Competitors are timed for each leg of the race and are required to at least fly past the Merced airport on their way north, although many stopped at TDL Aero offices at the airport for lunch after being up in the air for about 90 minutes.

Colleen Keller, 41, of San Diego has been competing in Palms to Pines for four years and has placed fourth twice. A pilot since 1992, she has logged 1,100 hours in her Cessna Cardinal. During the week, she’s an analyst for the Navy, doing operations research.

Racer makes a low pass
Racer makes a low pass

“What do I like about the race? Meeting other women pilots. It’s the camaraderie; the people are fantastic,” Keller said.

Ginny Watkins of Pensacola, Fla., flew into Merced with her daughter, Carol Jewett of Los Gatos. Watkins, 81, has been flying off and on since 1945, has participated in cross-country air races and spent many years flying with her late husband, a Navy pilot.

Palms to Pines competitor Debbie Cunningham of Los Gatos flew her Cessna 182 to Merced. She has competed in the race nine times and finished sixth one year.

A corporate jet pilot for a Fortune 500 company, she has flown all over North America, Canada and Mexico and has logged almost 8,000 hours.

“I like the challenge, traveling and meeting new people,” Cunningham said.

Kris deYoung, 57, of San Diego isn’t a pilot, but accompanied Keller for the first time on this year’s race. She said she’s interested in flying and joked that she knows just enough to be dangerous.

“I love the technical aspects of flying. I love being in an airplane and thought this could be fun,” deYoung said.

DeYoung helped Keller calculate her fuel needs, which are crucial. Because aviation gas weighs six pounds a gallon, taking on too much fuel would be like having an extra, unwanted passenger. Competitors had to have full fuel loads when they left Santa Monica on Friday.

Pat Gregory, 63, of Cupertino is the immediate past president of the Southwest section of the 99s, serving two years. This is her 10th year in the race; she finished sixth once.

“First off, I like to be in the air, and the women I’ve met, they’re incredible. I’ve met so many interesting people,” she said.

Gregory has only been flying for 14 years. She used to be a skydiver, but a neck injury was aggravated by parachute jumps.

She wanted to stay in the air, so she took flight lessons and bought a plane 12 years ago. Since then, she has flown her Cessna 172, a four-seat single-engine aircraft, all over the country, and even took a course to learn how to maintain the plane mechanically.

Earlier this summer, Gregory said, she took three weeks and flew to Atlantic City and back, stopping along the way to visit friends and relatives. She’s an eighth-grade science teacher at Kennedy Middle School in Cupertino.

Like many of her aviator friends, Gregory enjoys flying somewhere else for lunch. Hollister, by the way, is the best place for a chocolate milkshake, she said.

Propellor-driven planes represented in the air race include Cessna 172, 182 and Cardinal models, Piper Cherokee, Comanche, Warrior, Aero and Archer models, along with a Grumman Tiger and Bellanca Super Viking.

Former Merced resident Andy McCarthy, now living in Livermore, is vice chairman of the San Joaquin Valley 99s chapter, which stretches from San Diego to Geyserville. She said group members meet once a month and fly to different airports.

Lindy Bowles of Walnut Creek accompanied McCarthy to Merced to set up the luncheon. Bowles, 78, has been flying for 50 years and has logged 1,500 hours in the air. She’s a member of the group’s Hawaiian chapter.

Stressing that she just flies for fun, Bowles said some of her 99s friends will fly once a month to Monterey, Half Moon Bay, Napa, Santa Rosa or even Merced just for lunch.

Nancy Fouquet, 70, of Los Altos Hills authored three different Pilot’s Guide to Airport books and is a professional cartographer. Her family business covers 11 Western states and she has logged more than 1,000 hours flying, some of them scouting out different airports.

Fouquet characterized the 99s as an “oversized support group” and said members have lots of fun and mentor newer pilots. The 99s also conducts seminars for flying companions.

She said she grew up in an age where women were expected to stay in defined roles, but like many people, she did not take well to that. She has been flying for 40 years and has logged more than 1,000 hours in the air.

Associate editor Doane Yawger has been at the Merced Sun-Star for 35 years. He’s especially interested in transportation subjects including cars, trains and airplanes. We’d like to thank him for giving permission to reprint this story.