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Mitchell continues to embrace connection with air race

A group of pilots gather prior to take off Sunday at the Mitchell Municipal Airport for the 2018 AirVenture Cup air race. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

Although South Dakota is commonly characterized as a flyover state, Mitchell remains a destination for a prestigious airplane race that draws pilots from all over the world.

In its sixth year as biennial host of the AirVenture Cup, the Mitchell Municipal Airport has served as the starting line for the 450-mile airplane race, uniting pilots from Florida to Australia with different experience levels, all vying for the fastest time.

Mitchell Airport Director Mike Scherschligt said the pilot racers particularly like Mitchell, in large part due to the of prevailing winds at their back while racing to the finish line in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

"The prevailing winds and airport setup here in Mitchell are two of the biggest benefactors for having the race begin at our airport," Scherschligt said. "The pilots really love how we host this event."

Eric Whyte, founder of the AirVenture Cup Race, saw Mitchell as an ideal starting point for the race in 2008, which was the first year Mitchell hosted the event. Mitchell has hosted the race on an every-other-year basis with Mount Vernon, Illinois, and the race ends every year in Oshkosh.

Whyte is beyond pleased with the community support for the event.

"We chose Mitchell because of the airport having two runways, a great big ramp space, and the Wright Brothers Aviation business has been so helpful with this event," he added. "We can't just hold this race at any airport, so there is a reason we hold it here."

Sunday's race was the 21st AirVenture Cup, and the event draws pilots from all over the world with experience levels ranging from Air Force veterans flying fighter jets to World War II B-25 bombers.

"We have pilots from all over the world compete," Whyte said. "Denmark, Canada and Australia are just a few countries that some of the pilots are coming from."

Many of the planes in the race are handbuilt and antique-like, adding another element of excitement for some of the pilots to show off their planes prior to the race. An open house on Saturday has become a regular part of the event, as well.

Whyte said many of the planes are built from scratch and somewhat like "hot rod" cars.

Keith Phillips, a retired Air Force fighter pilot with 20 years of flying experience, is racing in his 21st AirVenture Cup and flew his hand-built aircraft all the way from his Daytona Beach, Florida home to Mitchell.

"The comradery and uniting of pilots is just a great time, and this race brings us all together," Phillips said. "The support we get from Mitchell is so great, we even had a city councilman want us to fly over town. That isn't the case in other states the race has been held."

For the race, each pilot has a separate departure time and the fastest racer wins the AirVenture Cup when they reach the finish line in Oshkosh. Although times vary, the average is roughly one hour, according to Scherschligt.

While the race prize is a trophy, Whyte said bragging rights are the on the line given the challenges of the 450-mile trek to Oshkosh, where the Oshkosh National Air Show takes place where pilots cross the finish line, the site of the largest air show in the country.

"This race is somewhat from a bygone era, because the logistics are very complicated now with air races," Scherschligt said. "They have to avoid nuclear power plants and military bases, to name a few."

"It's not just speed, it's about how well you can fly your airplane," Scherschligt said. "Did they pick the right altitude, did they find the right winds and do their planning?"

The first aircraft took at off at 9 a.m. Sunday, and the race concludes the same evening. Plans are in place to continue using Mitchell Municipal Airport as the starting line hosts again in 2020 and Whyte is proud to help make Mitchell known in the aviation community.

"There is not a lot of big air shows that happen in this part of the country, and we've put Mitchell on the map in the aviation community, tying it in with the largest air show in the world," Whyte said. "I'm grateful for the community and airport."