SIUE Alumnus takes to the sky in 2021 Air Race Classic

Betty White is the name of the plane that The Flying Penguins will be using in the 2021 Air Race Air Classic Derby, which is a 1969 Cessna 172

Pilot and SIUE Alumnus Anni Huang is taking flight in the 2021 Air Race Classic Air Derby, a flying competition celebrating women in aviation.

The Air Race Classic Inc. is a nonprofit that hosts a yearly race event to celebrate women in aviation. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the usual race was canceled, and replaced with an Air Derby event where contestants create their own route based on the competition guidelines and compete against their own estimates of the time to complete the route.

“The Air Race is deeply rooted in the history of women’s air races in general. It is conducted annually and during non-[COVID 19] times the racers raced through a series of routes across the country.  Because of [COVID-19], this is being run more like a virtual 5K,” co-pilot Heidi Kim said.

Huang’s team, the Flying Penguins, consists of her as the pilot, as well as Kim and navigator Mariah Sellers.

“The idea of [the name] Flying Penguins is really just combining my love and passion for flying, as well as my love and passion for Antarctica together. I still work in Antarctica; actually, I’m going back to Antarctica this year for two months to work as an expedition guide,” Huang said.

Part of the Air Race’s mission is to demonstrate women’s roles in aviation, and Sellers’ ambition for flight started from a similar point of representation.

“Two months before finding out I was pregnant, my husband had an aspiration to become a pilot. When he knocked on the flight school’s door, the person who answered was a female flight instructor. And that just blew my mind. I had never met a female pilot, let alone a female instructor,” Sellers said.

The yearly event has had pilots ranging from ages 17 to 90. Many pilots, including Kim, started out flying in their youth.

“ It’s not uncommon that many of us were flying before we were driving. My parents had to drive me to ground school when I was 15 because I didn’t yet have my full license. It’s often something that starts from a very young age,” Kim said. “I flew with my grandpa, and then I went to space camp, and I was just totally hooked on it.”

Huang said she felt her time at SIUE readied her for positions of leadership, fitting her role as the team’s pilot. 

“I was the president for the International Student Council, Society of Chinese Students, as well as the International Business Association. I was very heavily involved, and I did a study abroad with the business school, and that all really prepared me to take on a role to lead the team,” Huang said.

Seven percent of all certified pilots are female, and even less are women of color. The Flying Penguins aim to further aid diversity in the field of aviation.

“Before I walked into that flight school, I never imagined a female was going to open the door. How can we change that perception and make that possible for other people? As a minority, as a Latina, really there are not a lot of Latina female pilots either. You usually see more caucasian, just a majority,” Sellers said. "So it’s also a layer of, ‘Man, I can bring my culture into this, I can inspire other people, it’s not just a certain type of people doing this.’ It really just comes down to this: whatever you are or want to be, you can do it.”

Huang said that flying, as an experience, is something freeing for her.

“The sky is not your limit anymore. You can chase your dreams. When you fly, you leave everything else on the ground,” Huang said. “It’s a free-spirited, dream chasing, liberating feeling.”

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