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Building on a legacy: SIU female aviators set to compete in Air Race Classic

Saluki Aces: SIU Aviation’s Graci McDaniel, left, and Meadow Boden (right).
Russell Bailey
University Communications and Marketing
Saluki Aces: SIU Aviation’s Graci McDaniel, left, and Meadow Boden are preparing for the 46th transcontinental Air Race Classic, which starts June 20. McDaniel earned her bachelor’s degree in aviation management in May, and Boden is a certified flight instructor with the program and a 2022 graduate.

CARBONDALE, Ill. — For Meadow Boden and Graci McDaniel, participating next week in the annual Air Race Classic isn’t just about the competition. For the two recent Southern Illinois University Carbondale aviation graduates, it’s also about focusing on the achievements and future of women within the aviation industry.

“Last year, one of the biggest things for me — and what I’m looking forward to experiencing this year and see Graci experience — is the connections that you make with these other women,” Boden said. “Obviously it’s a competition; obviously we are all trying to win. But they are all supportive of each other, including all of the other collegiate teams. It’s nice that everyone is there to support each other.”

Boden and McDaniel will compete in a Cessna 172S within the collegiate division of the 2023 Air Race Classic, which starts Tuesday, June 20, in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The four-day, 2,334-nautical-mile journey runs through June 23 and includes nine stops in eight states before ending in Homestead, Florida. This is the 46th year for the event. Boden and McDaniel’s progress during the competition can be followed at airraceclassic2023.mapprogress.com. The pair left Southern Illinois Airport today (June 15) for the event.

McDaniel, a 2019 graduate of Pinckneyville Community High School, earned her bachelor’s degree in aviation management in May. She is finishing up her certified flight instructor (CFI) certificate and will work on her multiengine rating while remaining at SIU as a CFI.

“This is an awesome opportunity,” said McDaniel. “If you asked any of the girls here if they want to participate, they would.”

Charting their course

McDaniel looks forward to more “real-world experience and flying in different environments,” including lower altitudes. The duo will try to beat their own predetermined air speed in accounting for changes in terrain, weather, winds and airspace. They will fly with no air conditioning or open windows because the drag will slow the plane down.

McDaniel noted that several male aviation students have said they wished they could compete as well. “But it’s awesome to be with all of these women who get to do this, and this event is just for us,” she said.

“The thing I’m most excited for is just the type of flying that we are going to be doing and experiencing the in the plane – trying to push it to its limits.”

Boden expects her previous experience in the event to help. Her team finished 16th overall and third in the collegiate division last year. She also participated in 2021 in a shortened single-day air derby.

“There’s a lot of things that during the race that you don’t know until you do it,” Boden said. “You are flying the plane harder and faster than you normally would ever fly it. We are pushing this plane to its limits, seeing what the plane can do. Last year when we did that, it was a surreal feeling because I didn’t know what it felt like. Knowing what it feels like now, I think, will help us quite a bit because we understand what it’s going to be like.”

Loves learning about aviation

McDaniel said she wanted to be an astronaut but is too short. Her grandfather, Calvin McDaniel, was a pilot in World War II, and when he returned, bought his own planes. He was instrumental in the development and funding of the Pinckneyville-Du Quoin Airport after growing tired of landing on the grass, she said. The field at the civil, public use airport is named in McDaniel’s honor.

While her grandfather died when she was 5, aviation was always a common conversation at dinner. Once she started getting into aviation there was no turning back, she said, noting she “loves learning about all aspects of it.”

McDaniel initially began at St. Louis University but transferred to SIU’s aviation program. “That was definitely the best choice I could have made. I’m 100% a better pilot since being at SIU.

“Here, people are flying all the time. Everyone is pushing each other to get done as quickly as they can. That’s something that I needed at the time that I transferred, and I was successful in getting done pretty quickly through everything.”

Both Boden and McDaniel said they are keeping their aviation-related career options open.

Boden, who is from Bushnell, had a private pilot’s certificate before enrolling at SIU and participated in the program’s Summer Wings program in 2018. It was the only school she toured when deciding on a university. She flew with Steven Goetz, the program’s chief flight instructor, and it was Goetz who last year issued Boden her CFI certificate.

“After I graduated, I knew that I would stay to work here, which was a really good decision for me,” Boden said.

Diversifying the industry

The Air Race Classic celebrates the history of women in aviation. Amelia Earhart was one of 20 women to compete in the first women’s Air Derby in 1929. This is the eighth year SIU has competed. A team from SIU won both the overall and collegiate title in 2015.

“The event represents an opportunity to showcase the aeronautical skills of our female aviators on a national stage,” said José Ruiz, professor and School of Aviation director. “By doing so, our female flight students and instructors inspire prospective female aviators throughout the nation. Supporting our Air Race Classic participants serves to promote diversity within aviation, SIU and the SIU School of Aviation.”

Data from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women in Aviation Advisory Board show that women make up less than 20% of the workforce in most aviation occupations.

Ruiz notes the program continues to be proactive in increasing diversity by engaging in aviation-related events that target under-represented groups, including the Chicago-based AeroStar Avion Institute Aviation Day and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The SIU School of Aviation has student representatives of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, National Gay Pilots Association and Women in Aviation registered student organizations attend yearly conferences and hosts an annual Aviation Diversity Luncheon.

Grateful for the university’s support

McDaniel and Boden both emphasized they are grateful for the university’s support. Goetz has been a “major help” in helping prepare for the event, and the aviation maintenance and flight line crew have also been instrumental, Boden said, adding she loves “everything the school had to offer.”

“I don’t think people realize how lucky we are that we get to train in a really nice facility and our aircraft are really nice. It’s a team effort. Especially this year I realized that it’s not just about us two that are part of the race; it’s about everyone who helped us get there.”


Pete Rosenbery — arts and design, architecture, automotive and aviation, humanities, journalism and mass communications, law, public policy, social sciences.

SIU News is produced by University Communications and Marketing - 618-453-2589. Twitter: @SIUCNews
SIU News is produced by University Communications and Marketing - 618-453-2589. Twitter: @SIUCNews
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