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For winning pilot, 79, sky is not the limit

Published July 26, 2005

CLEARWATER - A competent pilot with a daring style. That's how fellow pilots describe 79-year-old Sophia Payton of Clearwater, winner of this year's annual all-women's transcontinental Air Race Classic.

"She's a wily pilot, as well as a daring risk taker," said Judith Bolkema-Tokar, who piloted her Cessna 182 to second place. "She flies on the edge - she's known for that. But she's a very competent pilot."

The petite Payton, who once raced cars and was a glider stunt pilot, likes to test the limits. She's intense, determined and focused. But she laughs a lot, and her eyes twinkle with mischief.

Payton's flying style has "flair," said Bolkema-Tokar, a past president of the Air Race Classic and resident of the Spruce Creek Fly-In community in Daytona Beach. "I don't think there's anybody quite like Soph. She's loaded with attitude."

Flying is Payton's lifelong passion. This is her fourth Air Race Classic win. The first was in 1978, the second year of the race. She won again in 1997 and 1998.

Marilyn Patierno, 63, of Spruce Creek was co-pilot with Payton last month in their winning Cessna 172SP, the plane Payton flew last year and leases from the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in St. Louis, Mo.

"We work very well together," said Patierno, who was Payton's co-pilot in the 2002 race. She teamed with Payton again instead of flying her own plane, she said, because "the handicap on my personal plane, a Bonanza, is not very good for this race."

Payton concentrated on flying the plane, and Patierno handled the radio communications.

The team's only passenger was Payton's 17-year-old grandniece, Erica Cochoff of Ackworth, Ga., who earned a student pilot license before the race.

"I made her the official photographer," Payton said. "She kept a diary of the race, paid the gas bills, got food for us and waxed the plane at every stop. She kept a perfect record of our takeoff, landing and fly-by times."

The 2,434-mile race began June 21 and ended June 24 at Purdue University Airport in West Lafayette, Ind.

All the planes in the classic are fixed-wing, unmodified or minimally modified factory models with 145 to 570 horsepower engines. Each of the 40 planes in this year's race was assigned a knots-per-hour handicap, and the winner is the one that exceeds the handicap speed by the widest margin. The race is flown during daylight hours.

Payton, who was recently honored with the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for her 61 years as a pilot, said their time in the air varied each day. The longest flight was the first day, six hours and 40 minutes from Purdue University Airport to Bartlesville, Okla. The shortest flight was the second day, two hours and 11 minutes, from Bartlesville to Shreveport, La.

They flew at altitudes from 3,000 to 6,500 feet. "We felt the best winds were at those altitudes," Payton said.

"It was a hot and hazy race," Patierno said.

"We didn't have good winds; in fact, we had no weather except for a little sprinkle over Dayton, Ohio," Payton said. "It was amazing. I've never been in a race when you didn't have thunderstorms.'

They encountered problems when their global positioning system overheated and shut off. "It tells us what airspace we're in and what airspace to avoid," Patierno said. Luckily, "we had a backup on battery."

The women split the costs of the race - about $7,000 - and the prize money - $5,000, Payton said.

Eighty pilots and co-pilots competed and finished the race. There were first-time and veteran racers, as well as five college teams from Ohio University, Western Michigan University, Nebraska University and Purdue University, which had two teams. Ages ranged from 21 to 89.

Among the longtime veteran pilots who raced were Ruby Sheldon of Phoenix, who has flown Huey helicopters, Douglas DC-3s and the Grumman OV 1B Mohawk. "She was the first helicopter instrument instructor licensed by the FAA," Bolkema-Tokar said.

[Last modified July 26, 2005, 01:15:21]

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