Five young women are walking toward the camera. Small airplanes are visible in the background.

Three sets of SIU Carbondale School of Aviation certified flight instructors and students will take part in the 47th Air Race Classic. From left are Graci McDaniel, Grace Gray, Gabrielle Loeb, Heidi Hightower and Ranier FullerMoore. Not pictured is Maya Marenda. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

June 13, 2024

Starting from home: SIU boasts six female aviators for 2024 Air Race Classic

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — It might not be a complete home court advantage, but three teams of Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Aviation female aviators will take off from familiar surroundings for the 47th Air Race Classic (ARC) on Tuesday, June 18.

Southern Illinois Airport — which also serves as the operations hub for the nationally recognized SIU Aviation program — is the starting point for the 2024 Air Race Classic. The four-day, 2,268-nautical-mile journey runs through June 21 and includes nine stops in nine states before ending in Loveland, Colorado. There are 48 teams in this year’s event, including 22 teams representing 14 universities. The ARC 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.

“Having the start be where I started my flight training has been super exciting because I first soloed here,” said Grace Gray, a senior aviation management and flight student, who with Gabrielle Loeb, a certified flight instructor (CFI) and December 2022 aviation management and flight graduate, are the Air Dawgs team. “Coming into my fourth year flying out of this airport in correlation with the ARC start is extremely special.”

Gray, who is from Lakeville, Minnesota, noted the “competitive drive is amped up for sure” for herself and fellow Salukis — Loeb, Heidi Hightower, Rainer FullerMoore, Maya Marenda and Graci McDaniel.

“There’s the whole country, and it starts at our home,” said Hightower, who graduated in May in aviation management. “We get to depart on this new adventure surrounded by familiar faces, terrain and controllers. It’s definitely convenient to start at KMDH (SI Airport), but I would have gone wherever needed to start the race without question.”

Hightower and FullerMoore are the Tall Tails team, and Marenda and McDaniel are The Salukis Aces. Each team will be in Cessna 172S planes, and their progress during the competition can be followed at

The goal for each team is to beat their own predetermined times in accounting for changes in factors that include terrain, weather, winds and air space. Often times, pilots fly with no air conditioning or open windows because the drag will slow the plane down.

“SIU Carbondale has a long and proud history of aviation students participating in the Air Race Classic,” Chancellor Austin A. Lane said. “We are delighted this year’s competition will start at the Southern Illinois Airport, where the Glenn Poshard Transportation Education Center houses premier facilities for our first-rate aviation and automotive programs. We hope the participants will enjoy their stay in this region and wish them the best of luck.”

Media advisory

To arrange for interviews with the competitors, contact Alyssa Connell, manager of communications at Southern Illinois Airport, at 319-243-9899. The Air Race Classic contact for media is Aviators will begin arriving Friday, June 14, with the competition starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the airport.

SIU’s long history in ARC

This is the ninth year that SIU has been in the event. A team from SIU won both the overall and collegiate title in 2015, and a year ago, McDaniel and Meadow Boden placed second both overall and in the collegiate division.

SIU provides the aircraft and fuel. Each team has designed merchandise to sell as a fundraiser along with other means.

In fall 2023, the School of Aviation had 678 students across all of its programs – aviation flight, aviation management and aviation technologies – with 100 to 110 women in those programs. According to a 2022 report by Women in Aviation International, women make up less than 20% of the workforce in most aviation occupations, with the largest gender gaps in senior leadership, professional pilots and maintenance technicians. The Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook for 2023-2042 shows long-term demand for aviation personnel will remain strong with the need for 649,000 new pilots, 690,000 new maintenance technicians and 938,000 new cabin crew members.

“The School of Aviation is happy to support our teams in the Air Race Classic,” said Steven Goetz, associate professor and chief flight instructor in the School of Aviation. “We hope that through our support of the ARC and other outreach events like Girls in Aviation Day, more women will consider aviation careers. Aviation is in need of skilled labor, and encouraging women to consider aviation careers is a great way to meet the needs of the industry and provide for a very rewarding career for the individuals who choose that path. We wish all the Air Race Classic competitors tailwinds and blue skies. Go Dawgs!”

SIU’s teams and crew are:

The Saluki Aces

McDaniel, from Pinckneyville, is a May 2023 aviation management graduate and is a CFI in the program. She is only one of the six Salukis to compete in a prior race. Gaining additional flying experience and the “opportunity to make more lifelong memories” is her goal. McDaniel is the co-pilot this year, with Maya Marenda piloting their plane.

“Being able to compete in such an awesome all-female event was more meaningful to me than receiving second place,” McDaniel said. “I learned so much and made so many lifelong connections with other female aviators in the field. I hope the same strategy Meadow and I used last year will help us be able to achieve another great finish this year. I hope to get some experience flying at higher altitudes in Colorado, although we don’t get too far into the mountains.”

McDaniel became inspired to pursue an aviation career through her family, especially her grandfather, Calvin McDaniel, a World War II pilot who bought his own planes when he returned. He was instrumental in the development and funding of the Pinckneyville-Du Quoin Airport, whose field bears his name.

She hopes to work for a regional airline after achieving 1,000 flight hours. She transferred into SIU’s aviation program from another university.

“I’m so glad I ended it here. If I were to pick one reason for my decision, it would be the people,” she said. “I have loved spending time with all of my instructors and peers from SIU, and I'm happy to still be around them every day instructing.”

Marenda, a senior in aviation flight and management from Oglesby, Illinois, said she has promised herself to take advantage “of all the opportunities that come my way.”

“I could not be happier with my choice; this race seems like such an amazing experience, and I’m grateful to be a part of an event that supports female pilots,” she said, adding that McDaniel “has been an amazing help, and I just want to make sure I can bring my best to strengthen our team. I have never experienced anything like this before, and being able to fly alongside some incredible and motivated women is going to be an honor.”

Marenda became interested in aviation after taking a discovery flight at her local airport in high school. A great aunt and her private pilot flight instructor are SIU alumni, and that helped influence her decision to come to SIU. She already knew that SIU “has one of the best aviation programs in the nation; however, I wanted to make sure that I felt home on campus.” Marenda and her mother toured programs, including Western Michigan, Purdue and Florida Tech, “but the feeling I got when I visited Carbondale was familiar,” she said. “I could see myself living there.”

Tall Tails

FullerMoore, from Charleston, Illinois, is a 2023 aviation management graduate and a CFI with the program while also working toward being an airline pilot and exploring aviation management careers. She noted the preparation required for competitors to be ready and safe.

“Reading rules and becoming familiar with a different type of flying in order to be comfortable has been the most time consuming,” FullerMoore said.

FullerMoore’s interest in the aviation industry began in 2018. She was on a Delta Airlines flight, and a flight attendant noticed FullerMoore’s enthusiasm. A tour of SIU’s transportation education center and close proximity to home convinced her to come to Carbondale. She added that her uncle, who recently retired from American Airlines, and her aunt were a huge help.

“This is a career my family and I knew nothing about, but they have supported me so much along the way,” FullerMoore said.

Hightower, who is from Chesterfield, Missouri, grew up in a general aviation family, and after getting to know family friends who are also pilots, decided to follow it as a career. She earned her private pilot’s license and chose to attend SIU to continue her flight training. She noted the detailed preparation she is learning that goes into the race, how the process works and what to anticipate. While it seems like a lot to comprehend, Hightower said, it’s “one step at a time, and we will have everything ready before we know it.”

In talking with previous competitors, Hightower said she’s learned “the relationships you make along the way are the best part of the race.”

“I look forward to meeting many incredible women and sharing this experience with my fellow Salukis,” she said. “The race sounds like the biggest sleepover/team bonding/storytelling adventure a pilot could ask for.”

Air Dawgs

Loeb, who is from Dunkirk, New York, said having the event begin at her home airport “adds an extra layer of personal significance, being able to have my peers see what the race entails and cheer us on from the start.” She was drawn to SIU’s aviation program “because it had a small community feeling with big-school opportunities.”

“Throughout my flight training, the goal has been to fly the airplane accurately and with smooth application. I have never tried to get the plane to fly as fast as possible and perform flybys,” Loeb said, adding that she is looking forward to “expanding my pilot skills in a competitive environment, pushing my limits under pressure and improving my decision-making skills.”

Loeb became interested in an aviation career when she was about 8. She grew up with a single mother who was a flight attendant, was often babysat by pilots, flight attendants and gate agents, and spent a lot of time in the JetBlue crew lounge at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“I loved flying and being around aviation professionals all the time. I really admired how passionate they were toward their work,” said Loeb, who is enrolled in multiple cadet programs and plans to be a first officer with a regional airline.

For Gray, whose hometown is about 30 minutes from one of the competition’s stops in Owatonna, Minnesota, it will be exciting to see her family when they fly in. One of the more challenging aspects has been the coordination in getting the aircraft ready for handicapping — where the test flight is completed to set the time to beat for their aircraft, along with anticipation leading the event and the “unknowns.”

“With the demands of the race, not only on your aircraft, but your body and mind, you have to be at peak performance throughout the race. That has been a process to navigate leading up to the race,” she said.

Gray’s parents are both SIU aviation management program graduates, and her father “has worked in airline operations my whole life, so I say I got the ‘aviation bug,’ and coming to SIU has been where I have started to see my dreams become a reality.”

“The caliber and structure of the degree program were exactly what I was looking for when looking at various universities,” Gray said. “Also, the flying season is very long here and is definitely different than back home in Minnesota, so SIU was and has been the best choice for me.”