By TRAVIS MORSE
---- — MT. VERNON – For many of the pilots taking part, Sunday's 2013 EAA AirVenture Cup Race was more about having fun than earning the best time.
The event featured a total of 47 racers, piloting experimental aircraft of all shapes and sizes. Pilots launched from Mt. Vernon Outland Airport Sunday morning and finished the race by flying over the Waupaca, Wis. Municipal Airport.
And even though the race presented numerous challenges, the pilots were in high spirits prior to take-off. The atmosphere was friendly instead of competitive.
“These airplanes, most of them, are realistically in the toy category. We don't use them for business,” said pilot Keith Phillips of Florida, who flew a Swearingen SX-300 in the race. “So (this) allows you to get together with your toys.”
The race drew hundreds of people to the Mt. Vernon Airport this past weekend.
While the main race was on Sunday, there was also a day-long open house Saturday where the public could view the airplanes on display and talk to the racers.
“I think it's a good family outing,” said Pam Kirkpatrick of Woodlawn. “The kids love the planes.”
Also on Saturday, there was a Mt. Vernon 100 race featuring about 20 aircraft, and free plane rides were offered for children as part of the Young Eagles program.
“I think it's great for the kids,” said Melissa Gibson of Bluford, whose children, Spiros and Katie Giatras, went on a free plane ride. “I think it gives them a great opportunity.”
The AirVenture Cup Race is considered one of the world's fastest cross country air races. The initial race occurred at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1998, and this is Mt. Vernon's first time hosting the competition.
“The main benefit to this is exposure for our airport on a national level, actually international, there's a lot of Canadian airplanes here,” said Chris Collins, airport manager. “So they get to see Southern Illinois and our hospitality.”
Gene Ledda and Lynn O'Donnell of Daytona Beach, Fla., piloted a Van's RV-7A aircraft in Sunday's race. To Ledda, the length of the race was the most difficult aspect.
“It's a long race for the amount of fuel the plane carries, so that'll be my challenge,” Ledda said prior to the race. “If the winds are agreeable and it's cool enough, I might be able to do the race without a stop.”
A race like this one really boils down to “pilot skill and strategy,” said Eric Whyte, chairman of the 2013 AirVenture Cup Race. Pilots have to determine whether to fly at high or low altitudes, taking into account wind shifts, he said.
“There's a lot of strategy involved,” Whyte said.
The timed race included 14 classes of aircraft. The fastest overall plane Sunday was a Turbine Legend piloted by Marty Abbott of Calgary, Canada. Abbott achieved the highest average speed of 354.30 mph and finished the race in 1 hour, 17 minutes, the fastest time.
AirVenture organizers said they were quite impressed with Mt. Vernon Airport and that it made for an ideal venue for the race. The event may return to Mt. Vernon in 2015, which is the next time the race will be held in the eastern part of the U.S.
“You have an excellent airport here and the manager and the staff here have been very accommodating,” said AirVenture Cup Co-chairman Craig Henry. “It's a great way for the community to come out and see what their airport is about.”