The 2011 Reno Adventure
The three words “Reno Air Races” send a shiver of excitement, followed by numbing fear through me. It’s real. I am doing this. Yes I’m excited to be going to Reno as a qualified “Race pilot” to race for the first time. But I’m also conscious that this IS pretty dangerous. Eight aeroplanes on the runway at the same time, taking off in “aggressive formation” and racing, flat out, round 50’ high pylons of 50 gallon oil drums on top of telegraph poles. This isn’t the “single aircraft on the course and soft pylons of Red Bull”. This is Reno!
The route to Reno:
I’ve been on a few great adventures as a pilot; I flew hang gliders for 30 years, in most European countries and a quite few places in the US. I’ve learned to fly microlights (to aerotow hang gliders), helicopters, tail draggers and fast jets. Each of these was an adventure in its own right and these brought me to formation flying and aerobatics. Which resulted in getting a Display Authorisation, which I have now had for a few years, and so I do a few shows during the year. And along the way I have met a large number of fellow crazy people who call themselves pilots. Some, a very few, are aviators. And I feel very privileged to call some of them my closest friends.
So I can do some of these things, but I’m not an expert at any of them. I have a day job so I only get to fly at weekends and I fly on only a standard PPL (both CAA & FAA, although I have instrument training). I don’t have thousands of airline hours or hundreds of instrument procedure approaches to minimums. But I do have a lot of “hands on” flying. I’m safe, reasonably competent and very thoughtful about what I will and what I won’t do. And I will make my own decisions and decide not to fly, no matter the peer pressure, when I’m not happy. I do have quite a lot of experience, but it covers many disciplines, so my flying experience is broad but thin. Despite this I do seem to have acquired the requisite mix of skill to be prepared for Air racing.
Thom Richard and a dangerous new glint:
I blame Thom Richard, completely and without reservation. It’s all his fault. Thom is an aviator, the co-owner of Warbird Adventures in Kissimmee, Florida. He runs a T-6 flight training operation that caters for everyone from experienced pilots who want heavy tail dragger training and those who just fancy the idea of getting their hands on an ancient aeroplane with a large round engine. We met in the mists of time, back when I was moving up from hang gliders and wanted to savour a wider range of aviation experiences. I have been flying with him pretty much every year since. He even taught me to fly helicopters. But one year he had a new glint in his eye. He had discovered air racing. He was a Rookie in 2008 in Formula 1, flying Miss USA Race No. 40. And in 2009 won both Gold and Silver classes with Invictus and Miss USA. Like I said, Thom is an aviator.
In 2010 he won silver in the Jet class flying a Polish Iskra Pole Dancer, and in the Spring of 2011 he and his partners, Scott & Mike, bought a Griffon-engined Mustang racer with counter rotating propellers, Precious Metal, race No 38, to move up to the Unlimited class. Thom is going places, quickly.
I went to Reno as a spectator in 2010 and after races I sat in Miss USA, Thom’s Cassutt racer. She was built in 1969, later modified with an Owl wing, and has passed through many hands over the years. Let me explain a few things about Formula 1 aircraft; this is the longest continuous racing class that dates back to the 1930s back when race aircraft were faster than the military and new technologies were developed in racing, as opposed to for warfare. Today the military has gone turbine and uses reheat for speed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of turbines too, but no matter how you dress it up, starting a jet is a lot like switching on a hairdryer. Click, its running. And it can run at 100% all day. Pistons are always harder and “more interesting” to operate.
Formula 1 planes are pure-bred racers with stock O-200 Continental reciprocating piston engines, subject to very rigorous technical inspections. And they are really tiny. At 6’ 0” and 180lbs I barely fit in it. To give you a sense of scale the wingspan is 19’, so it has half the span of my hang glider! There are no trimmers, no hydraulics, no generator and no starter motor. You have to hand swing the prop to start her. All excess weight and aerodynamic drag is stripped out. But on only 100 horsepower she achieves 250 mph!
Somehow I managed to persuade Thom to let me fly her, so in May I bolted 3 days onto a business trip to NY and went to Kissimmee to learn. Inside Miss USA’s tiny cockpit the systems are minimal, stick, pedals, throttle, mixture, EFIS and 2 mag switches. The radio is a handheld (wired to the stick for safety). We had three days to renew my FAA PPL and master Miss USA. And we managed to visit Precious Metal for a pre-buy inspection, fly an R44 and a Twin Commanche (I’m not twin rated) too.
Take off is pretty straight forward, right aileron and rudder as power comes in, take the stick out as airspeed increases, more right rudder as you raise the tail, lift off into ground effect until 130 mph and then pitch up (about 40 degrees) to climb between 130 and 140 mph. She is very noisy with the exhaust stubs just above your knees and the electrical firestorm from the big bendix mags just kills the radio so no squelch is sufficient, all you can hear is static. Flying round the airport, above the pattern but below the Class B, is straightforward and she’s delightful, simple, pure and exhilarating to fly. Responsive and light to the touch. A real pilot’s plane. The engine revs like a sewing machine at 3,900 rpm (the red line is 2,750 rpm, but hey, this is a race plane) and she moves! Indicated was 185 mph but that’s more like 230 mph true. So far so simple. But landing?….now that’s a different question.
The gear is fixed and is sprung steel, so it wants to bounce you back into the sky with the slightest nudge of tyres against tarmac. The gear is narrow, so she is inclined to rock, roll, bob and weave and you had better have her dead straight when you touch down or your are going to swap ends, take out the prop and do a boat load of damage in less than a heartbeat. And, just to make matters more interesting, with no flaps or drag reduction devices, and no trimmer, the stick goes kind of floppy as you slow down to approach speed, it moves a long way and not a lot happens at 100 mph, but she still has no desire to stop flying at all. Threshold at 100mph is Thom’s wisdom. At 110 mph she will cover ¾ of a 6,000’ runway at 3’ slowing down to landing speed. She clean and slippery, very glider-esque, so nail the approach speed or miss the mile long runway… “Touch down at 87 mph and get her on the ground by 82 mph” is the brief. I try to land her in 3 point attitude and it’s a complete shambles. Even my third attempt at landing had the controller at Kissimmee observe laconically over the radio, after probably my 20th bounce, “She’s quite a handful now, isn’t she?” Eventually I decide to wheel her on, one wheel at a time, to kill the bounce, and with a manly push each time to hold her down as each wheel caresses the runway. And she’s easy. Or maybe I have learned something new.
I have a sortie in formation with the T-6’s and get some good pics and then accelerate away effortlessly for some gentle aeros, my 100 hp out gunning their 600 hp with ease. And pretty soon its time to put her in the trailer for “Moose & Bex’s big adventure” another huge chapter in the story, what heroes (!) driving her cross country. We meet at Reno and put her back together at Reno for Pylon Racing School, known as ‘Rookie School’, in June.
The Florida International Racing Team:
Tom has been corrupting more people than just me. He’s a one man Reno recruiting roadshow. He reckons that Kissimmee has become the Polish jet, Iskra, capital of the world and he has 4 planes and crews all ready to go. With Thom in Precious Metal and me with Miss USA, it’s 6 crews. He suggests that we form a team, the Florida Air Racing Team. I point out that this would be Team FART and propose the Florida International Racing Team, or FLIRT, instead. And so Team FLIRT is born.
Pylon Racing Seminar or “Rookie school”:
PRS was a blast. A lot of learning in a short period of time. Great people, new friendships, wisdom passed down from those that know to those that need to know. Morning flights and afternoon classes taught us the basics. We learned a new lexicon of “Race pilot speak”. Kevin Broughall came out from London as my crew chief and one day a pair of skinny male legs emerged from under the plane during an oil change and introduced himself as Steve. He had the clear eyes and steely (oil covered) grip of someone you really want on your side and so he joined us.
Tom Watkins, a more experienced F1 driver told me on our first morning at PRS , “It’s not a matter of if the engine quits but when”. He’s right. He ought to know as he’s had three engine failures on the course.
First time on the course was amazing. It felt surprisingly natural and not at all rushed, “floating” round 50’ high pylons at about 100’ at full blast and 85 degrees of bank. Keep the ball in the middle, hold an accurate line and keep the G as low as possible was roughly what seemed right. We did all the exercises and I had an engine failure on the last day. No biggie. 230 mph round pylon 6 and quick check inside the cockpit, oil pressure has been dropping as expected, but now its zero. No hesitation, pull back the throttle, turn left into the course before home pylon, zoom climb trading speed for altitude, call “Race control Race 40 downwind with the gear for zero eight” get the response “Race 40 cleared to land zero eight” and put her down. The prop stops turning on the approach roll on the runway, transition hot to cold side (fast to slow) side of the runway and turn off before she stops rolling, neatly just past the dotted lines. I was bollocked for not calling a Mayday. But that would have been more drama. All I had to do was go and land and, after all, I’m a glider pilot at heart.
On our last evening at PRS, Scott, a much more experienced pilot than me, who has brought an Iskra to Reno very coolly decides that he doesn’t have the formation or fast jet experience and decides to train more and come back next year. That’s a real grown up pilot’s decision. Doing the right thing even when you don’t want to. In the end Team FLIRT is down to three; Lachie Onslow, an Australian helicopter operator, who has raced Outrageous in F1 and is now driving an Iskra, Onslaught, No. 6, Thom flying Precious Metal, Race No. 38, and me with Miss USA, Race No. 40.
Preparation for race week:
Over the summer we did some work to Miss USA to fix the engine and make her go faster. Steve took control and managed the project, thank goodness as it would have been impossible to do so from long distance. Endless daily emails were exchanged (each one signed simply “Faster!”) to make it all come together. More work and effort than is remotely reasonable for races that last 10 minutes each. Even the vintage Church van that towed her to Reno was fixed up and now has air conditioning (almost!).
As I write this, at 38,000’ in a BA747, enroute to LA & Reno, Thom and Lachie are flying into Stead in Precious Metal and Onslaught. We all meet at the bar tonight, to plan test flying and bringing in the speed mods that Steve has been cooking up since we left him with a damaged engine in June. I’m not setting out to win anything this year, just to learn and be safe. If we can stay in the Gold class and fly well enough to be considered a “good stick” by the more experienced pilots, then I will be happy.
Next year we will go faster in F1, the year after I think we will try to race in the jet class (such a pity not to be allowed to bring a Gnat as it would smoke everyone, but swept wing jets aren’t allowed) and then with any luck I will bring the Seafire 17. Apparently nobody has ever raced a Spitfire on the course at Reno and only 2 other Brits have raced in unlimited. It would be kind of fun to be the third Brit and first to fly a Spit at Reno. Those eliptical wings will look so great banked up round the course with the roar of a Griffon VI. And it would be fun to follow in Thom’s prop wash.
We do have a plan to win unlimited of course. That would be proper grown up fun. Lapping Rare Bear would be a delicious experience. But hey, we have to dream.
Of course the queues at LA were legendary and we nearly didn’t make the flight, our luggage didn’t make the connection at LA, so we go to bed without the tools we need to fly tomorrow.
Day 1 Sunday September 11th
I’m up early and leave Kelly in the room to try to collect our bags at the airport. Mine has turned up, via SF (?), but not hers. We meet Scott & Kellie who have offered us a ride into Stead and we catch up on Thom’s news with PM. He has had 3 emergency landings and is in Lubbock Texas awaiting parts. They arrange flights and one of the Kissimmee crew to fly it out to him. Lachie made it to Stead, with Scott in his rear seat in Onslaught.
At the hangar we meet up with Kevin and Steve and a new face, Ben, a student at professional pilot school in Oklahoma, who has been sent along to help us out by Thom. The plan is to get a qualifying time and then relocate to a small nearby field to fly off the 2 hours required by the FAA for the mods and then return to Stead. However the FAA will not allow us to register a qualifying time on the course and then change the spec – and to leave Reno we need her in unmodified configuration. So its all hands to change her back and the sky is darkening. I set up radio, camera, Scot gets me a map and I make sure the EFIS is charged and lend a hand where possible but time is a tickin’. The radio with the face mask is awful and I have a huge problem trying to get Stead to hear me. The GPS doesn’t accept the goto and has no GPS signal. Eventually we get started and I taxi down to 08 behind al L39. By the time I have run up and launched it’s 1630 and there are lightning flashes to the West…..
The flight was eventful, to say the least. Here’s the email I sent out afterwards.
Reno day 1 Told by FAA to go to another field across the state border in Calif to fly off 2 hours of time in new set up. Slightly too exciting first flight…. Through mountains, no GPS, got lost, radio useless, weather of rain and thunderstorms, managed to avoid most of the rain but the lightning does sharpen the senses. Almost out of fuel, found the field by following a railway (that’s mostly green and invisible since it is used so little…), set up to land, shorter runway than Reno, windsock does 180 as I’m on finals, we are probably out of juice so just grind it on, looks like we’re going off the far end, throttle doesn’t seem all the way back so I almost pull it out of the panel, switch one mag off and weave down the runway to make it longer, while standing in the brakes, with the tail in the air. Actually stopped just fine. But it was quite a performance for half a minute…. Tied her down in the rain, alone, on a deserted airfield. It’s all glamour this air racing! Still nothing broken and we get stuck into performance testing tomorrow. Experience is what you get when you are expecting something else. SPH Kelly and Steve collect me and I tell the team that we all need an early night as we have plenty to do tomorrow. So we pick up the rest of the team from the hangar, stuff the van with everything we need (its only just big enough!) and take them to the GSR for dinner. Steve uses our room for a shower (he hasn’t had one in 4 days). Its bed and I’m asleep the instant I lay my head on the cold cotton sheets.
Day 2 Monday September 12th
Alarm at 0530. Meet Ben in the lobby and the boys at the hangar for the drive to Beckworth municipal airport 24 nautical miles 280 degrees from Reno Stead (how simple that seems) into a wall of fog with the tops of the mountains poking through the fog. It could hardly be more surreal. I can’t help but laugh out loud. It reminds me of those hang gliding competitions in South Wales, where, despite the cloud on the hill tops and an appalling forecast, we had to drive up and rig up and wait for briefings to be pushed back and back and back again, until finally the day was canned and we could all retire to the safety and warmth of a local pub and talk about flying instead. So here we are, in the mist and low cloud, peeling back the sodden overnight protection and wiping Miss USA dry. Within minutes the van is empty and we have our stuff spread in thoughtful piles all over the ramp. The team goes to work stripping off the “stock” race gear and getting ready to reinstall the new cowling, exhaust etc. I find power and soon there are cables trailed across the ramp and the EFIS battery, radio and GoPro camera are all back on charge.
We spend the morning building the mods back onto the plane. Kelly goes for breakfast and coffee runs – 6 miles away, Steve makes new parts of GRP on the ramp, Kevin and Ben rebuild the cowling, the prop goes on and is carefully re-torqued. The mist clears. Bob, an ex-glider pilot and former Reno racer with a Harman Rocket, comes and chats and offers us his hangar if the rain comes back, the local FBO gives us parts and will not accept money. The sun comes out, work progresses well and we all decide that we like rural California. We test the radio with the boom mike and its fine (the face mask was awful leaving Stead yesterday) and we re-mount the camera (which was upside down). But we still need 2 hours flying time on her, another prop change and to get her back to Stead to attend briefing at 1800 tonight. We are going to be pushed for time…. Still we have clear skies and no congestion from other planes, all we have seen today is 2 King Airs drop in and leave us and a Bonanza doing aeros…… So much more peaceful than the madness at Stead. The new 12” prop extension and cowling go on and new plenum boxes are manufactured out of aluminium sheet and GRP. Finally she is ready to be flown in the new state. We still have electronic ignition and the new prop to fit….but these are minor performance enhancement items only, that don’t need to be “flown off”.
Its almost 1500 by the time I strap in and we are ready to go. It takes ages to start the engine, but we do get her running eventually, by which time Kevin is knackered. There is no RPM indication and the crew have forgotten to tell me that the oil temp sensor isn’t connected and is reading ambient temps only – which is why she cools as I run her up! Oil pressure is fine and I taxi out. At run up she gets hot pretty quickly, not surprising since we have restricted the air access, so I take off and settle her down. She stays hot so I richen up the mixture and call the crew with the temps. After 20 minutes of gently trogging round the field oil pressure is falling so I decide to land. Nice accurate landing at the right speeds and roll in using less than half the runway. There’s a bit of smoke as I stop (from the newly manufactured plenum boxes) and the cowlings come straight off. There are too many leaks around the baffles under the new cowling so we are losing cooling air. There doesn’t appear to be any damage. It seems as if I have made the right decision to bring her back now. The boys go to work to improve the cooling and I chill in the pilot lounge, a wonderful wooden hut with chairs and a loo, wondering how they are going to make my life more interesting in the next flight…… We have to get back to Reno tonight for briefing at 1800. But I still have Tuesday and Wednesday to go on the course and post some times.
No sign of Thom, he’s still stuck in Texas with a broken plane.
Email sent out Monday evening
Reno day 2 Weird day. Drove over to Beckworth into a wall of fog and mist. Spent until 1500 getting the mods finished. Finally took her flying and the cooling wasn’t enough. Watched the CHT climb to 670 (535 is normal ops)and the oil pressure slowly collapse, so put her back on the ground. At least my flying was much better than yesterday – you forget what a handful these things are! The team have worked on the cooling all afternoon and I went for a mandatory briefing. So the plan is: Plan A, meet at 0530 and see if she works as planned. If so fly her home to Stead by 0645 for briefing at 0700, get her technical inspection done for the mods, range at 0800 and fly the course to get a qualifying time. Optimistic! Plan B, she isn’t good enough to fly her back but we are on the right track, work on her and fly her back after hours, get her teched and qualify Wed. Possible. Plan C, she isn’t good enough and we can’t fix her, so convert back to stock and fly her back and qualify Wed. Worst case but not a disaster. The locals are amazingly helpful and hospital. And we love rural California. SPH
Day 3 Tuesday September 13th
Alarm at 0430 and we call Digger to wish him happy 24th birthday in Edinburgh, where he is having lunch with Lucinda, Lucasta and his girlfriend, Amy, on our drive to Beckworth. We meet at the aircraft in Bob ‘s hangar at 0540. Plan A is to fly her back to Stead before the 0700 briefing, if there is enough light. There’s fog and a full moon. But by 0615 there isn’t enough pre-dawn light to aviate, so I trog back for mandatory briefing at 0700 in the 15 seater Church van. Then rapid turnaround and back to Beckworth – it’s a beautiful morning, now that the sun is up and we are optimistic about getting into the sky and getting some serious time on the new cowling. But….we cannot start her. Two sessions and Kevin’s arm is wrecked. The cowls come off plugs are cleaned, timing is checked and we need to make a decision about putting her back into original configuration. We finally get her running at 1230 and the cooling is better but not good enough. I can only use race power for half a lap and then need to cool down and I land before the oil pressure drops too low.
She’s better but cylinders 2 & 4 are still too hot – so I have to tell the guys to put her back to the old “stock” configuration. It’s disappointing for all of us. We strip the new cowls and exhaust off and eat pizza watching the Breitling Edge display for us. It’s plan C but we should have enough time to get her back to Reno by 1700 get through the technical inspection tonight and qualify tomorrow. If she starts…?
We decide to try out the new prop and see how much better she is, or not? That way at least we have used some of our new toys.
Its 1630 when I take off, do a quick lap to make sure that everything is running fine, buzz the boys, do some rolls and then set off for Reno. But the sky is dark ahead and I can see sheets of rain. I try to plot a course between the showers but there are soon spots of light rain on the canopy, so I throttle back to protect our shiny new carbon race prop. Kelly is on the road in the Church van 4,000’ below to greet me (with prop covers to hide the new prop too) and she can see me high above Hallelujah junction, a tiny plane in a dark and threatening sky. A few spots of heavy rain hit us so I backtrack and then turn North, skirting a big CuNimb to stay away from the rain. At 9,000’ looking down on Stead field all I can see is rain showers. Race control tells me that they have switched to using 32 and that winds are 20 gusting 25 in heavy showers. Not a good option for a little tail dragger, so I head back to Beckworth and as I taxi in, back in warm California sunshine, much to my surprise the crew turn up. They had been driving out as I returned and saw me coming back. Good news. We wait for the weather to clear, meet Mrs Bob (Toody) and then try to restart Miss USA. But again she will not play. We try, try and try again until the sun goes down below the hills. Very frustrating indeed! We push her into Bob’s perfect hangar and head out. On the way back to Reno we are treated to one of Mother nature’s finest shows; an electrical storm in a line of Cu Nimbs that goes on all the drive home, flashing bright and eerie inside the row of clouds to our West.
Reno day 3 Alarm at 0415, collect Ben (our new recruit to the team, already rechristened Torque), and drive to Beckworth. It’s a full moon and the low lying fog looks amazing in the moon light. Otherwise its pitch black. I must attend mandatory briefing at 0700 or RARA will not let me fly. At all. No discussion. We push Miss USA out but by 0615 it is still too dark to even think of flying back to Reno, so back in the van and drive to briefing leaving the team with the plane. Plan A is no more. I return by 0800 and they have started her easily and so I prepare to test fly the cooling mods, but now she will not start. So the cowlings come off and we discover that the mags have twisted and advanced the timing beyond 30 degrees TDC – making hand proping almost impossible. The cowls go on and eventually she starts – they all have sore shoulders from hand propping – there is no started motor, and so I do a few laps. 2 cylinders are better, but if I run at race power (full throttle and then some) cylinders 2 & 4 overheat.
I try different settings until she is dangerously hot and the oil pressure is below 5 psi and then land her. The Team are cool about ripping off the mods and returning her to stock, although we console ourselves by fitting the new race prop. Plan B is over. By 1630 its time to take the “stock” plane back to Reno. Getting her started is a pain but finally she does fire up. One circuit at race power to confirm the cooling still functions and I head out to Reno. There are thunderstorms over the mountains as I climb up to 9,000′ and the sheets of rain look great – but the one thing you don’t do with a brand new carbon race prop is run it at 4,000 rpm into rain!
I fly between showers, searching for a gap between the storms, find some light drizzle and pull back to 2,500 rpm trying to find a route through. Miss Kelly has been sent ahead with prop covers etc to receive me at Reno and unknown to me she can see me, a mile above her apparently engulfed in the storm while, she is driving through torrential rain. A handful of heavy raindrops hit the canopy and it’s a quick about turn away from the storms. I then track North over the mountain and after crossing the next big spine am 10 miles North of Stead looking down on a major storm. I call up for weather and they are using runway 32 with winds of 20 gusting 25 out of the North. Bugger that!
I return to the sunshine and friendly neighbours across the border in Calif. expecting the crew to be half way to Reno when I land. But no, as I taxi in they are rolling towards me, having seen the little red racer returning as they were driving out. We wait for the storms to pass, watching the Breitling team practice their aero displays for the races and Bob who has so kindly taken us in and given us shelter in his hangar brings his wife out to see us. Mrs Bob! I strap back in as the weather clears and…. she will not start…. The sun sets below the last hill lighting the sky above us in pinks and oranges. One last attempt, but no. Steve is disconsolate. “It’s all my fault”. But I’m having none of that.
Plans are discussed on the drive back to Stead – maybe we take the trailer over dismantle her and truck her back – or try again tomorrow – we figure that we could start her in the dark and leave her ticking over until its light enough to fly and if she doesn’t start leave for briefing by car at 0615. The wall of storms is giving us a free show as lightning fires off inside the clouds to our West again and again. We need sparks like that inside Miss USA! Still Thom has arrived with Precious Metal with serial adventures to tell us and tales of the immense support he received in Texas. Kelly does her third “bitch run” (her name for supporting the team!) of the day to feed the team. And we agree to meet at 0545 at the plane for a night start. The boys decide they will go earlier to retime the mags again…… Plans A, B and C have been and gone but the team gets A for effort. “We will get you on that race track….somehow” is how Steve and Kevin end the day. Day 4 Wednesday September 14th
Alarm at 0415 and we drive to Beckworth again. The plan is to start her at night and keep her on tickover until there is enough light to fly back to Reno at about 0630 to make briefing at 0700. But if she will not start we can still make it by jumping in the van and driving at 0615. Kevin and Steve are retiming the engine again as they are convinced that the mags have twisted against the engine mount and advanced beyond 30 degrees TDC. The cowlings are going on fast and I jump in while still in the hangar at 0610. We prime and pull through but no…… she will not start, so back in the van to make briefing on time.
Miss Kelly has done over 750 miles in “her” Church van since we arrived, feeding and caring for the crew. She has done endless “bitch” runs for food, spares and random requests, keeping us all cared for and able to function. That the entire crew hasn’t had a single cross word, despite the stress, lack of sleep and myriad frustrations is almost entirely down to her quiet and careful nurturing of us all.
Briefing is a strange experience, a mix of clipped military efficiency and Western laid back cool. The Air Boss is “Shifty”, early 60’s, drives a 767 for UPS and runs these briefings with relaxed and self assured calm. He’s done this before and people die on his watch occasionally. He’s the guy you would want to brief you if you were going out to get shot at. The power point slides flick by passing crucial information to the assembled group of 50 to 60. Safety is the key message. Yes we are here to race but let’s all be thoughtful. There are the pilots and chiefs of Tech and Ops in each Class, the pylon crews, safety and comms crews, weather forecasters and airspace managers and, of course, the FAA. Its 0700 sharp and everyone is wide awake and raring to go. The average age is probably 60, ranging from mid 30’s for youngest pilots to mid 80’s for the oldest Ops guys. Most wear baseball hats, flight suits cover some of the pilots, in military green with no flashes, or covered in technicoloured sponsor’s, aircraft, operational unit and event badges. John Deere jackets and a few big hats make up the rest. Trainers, working boots and fire proof race shoes for the few pilots are standard footwear. I wonder just who these guys really are and so I look around. The pilots have amazing experience; U2 drivers, F117, B One and B2 bomber guys. Some of the older guys flew F4 Phantoms, B52s and even earlier jets. Even the pylon crews are manned by pilots with thousands of hours on C130s. I ask myself “what am I doing here?” These guys don’t have to think to decode a METAR or figure out the changes in airspace as the waiver moves altitude during the day. Shifty talks about the accordion of time and how the Thunderbids have mucked with his carefully planned 4 dimensional schedule (3D and time) ….again. I conclude that I’m surrounded by giants and I just hope not to screw up and embarrass myself too badly.
Reno day 4 0415 alarm again for a night start at Beckworth and then run the engine on tickover until there is enough light to fly into Reno. And if she doesn’t start then its jump in the church van in the pre-dawn light, by 0620 latest to make briefing at 0700. The boys are busy re-timing the mags again and the cowling is going on in double quick time to give us a start window before I have to go by car. I’m strapped in and ready in the hangar, pushed out and …she… will…. not… start. Frustration and despair all round.
Miss Kelly drives and I’m at briefing with 6 minutes to spare. Shifty the Air Boss and Bob Bemmett, head of Formula 1 Ops, are both very supportive and will accept me in if I can start her. An unheard of liberty! So we drive back to Calif again. We have time, everything has been checked and so we set up cameras, and pray she will start. It’s a perfect morning for flying with blue skies a little light ground mist and so I strap in again ever hopeful and…..she starts!!! I set off for Reno, buzzing the boys after a quick low circuit. Some aeros as we cross the mountains and then I call up Race control for landing clearance. A T-6 heat is underway so I stay high and West of the field trying to get Race Control to give me clearance into the pattern. A second T-6 heat is staging, so I need to land at the end of this heat or I will get stuck up here for another 15 minutes…. I see the first T-6 climb out for cool down, let them all come up, a swirling race track pattern of big scary aircraft, and them join the back of them as they set up to land. I join the approach queue, get clearance to land and slide on with good spacing. As I’m taxiing back to the F1 pits and have switched to Ground they call me up “Race 40 how do you copy”. “Loud and clear, 40″ I reply – good comms at last. “Next time you come in let us know which class you are we thought you were a T-6…”. “Understood but I had agreed with the Airboss that I had clearance”. Ok so finally back at Reno and I haven’t screwed it up entirely yet!
The F1 tech boys are great and on the job. I’m in the silver race, we fly later today than usual so we have time to get ready – let’s hope she will start! Alvarro from the Spanish team offers his help and we get advice on starting technique from all sides. We go on the runway with 5 aircraft for the silver race. I’m drawn the middle of the front row. Formation takeoff I can do but I have never done this before…. On the runway we get 10 minutes to start her, so I jump in and we go straight into start up. Alvarro swings away, it’s not happening. Kevin winds the prop backwards to clear the cylinders, we try again and she starts! Red flag, green flag, wind her up, lean and the flag comes down and we are off. The aircraft on either side accelerate ahead of me. At pylon 1 I’m catching the aircraft that started on my right and by the back straight I overtake him as he has climbed too high, slowing down as he climbs. Then into pylons 4, 5 and 6 and keep her balanced, staying level and running flat out. I cannot catch Race 44 but he gets smoke in the cockpit on the third lap, calls a Mayday and climbs out. I have no idea where he is and just keep on driving on as hard as I can. The lime green plane also Maydays out. I manage to lap the other 2 planes and so win the heat! Amazing, from not even starting at Reno this morning I am the first winner of a race at Reno in 2011! The boys are ecstatic and we get treated to a ride in front of the crowd in the vintage Firetruck! I invite Philip Goforth from Race 44 to join us and we fire T shirts into the crowd with his slingshot. Miss Kelly shimmies the Bear pit to everyone’s delight!! Smiles and laughter all round. I’m knackered. Too many early mornings and late nights. We party at Precious’ pit and I collect Miss Kelly who is party central at “Reno afterhours”, collecting T shirts and hats as she cruises the pit parties. Quite a day. From not even on the field to Reno heat winner! The boys celebrate by stripping the carburettor and doing ground runs until 0200 in the morning. They are the real heroes of the day. What a day. From having not qualified and not even being on the airfield to winning silver and riding the firetruck!! We are all exhausted. Hopi arrives from Pittsburg and Julian and Christine drive up from San Diego. They try to take me out for supper but I’m simply too exhausted to talk or eat.
Day 5 Thursday September 15th
My first F1 Gold race.
Briefing at 0700, stage at 0745, watch the Biplane silver heat then our silver then biplane Gold and then us. I’m drawn on the inside of the back row with Bill Prodi on my right and Tom Watson in Pooder outside him. During staging we look at the gap seals on Pooder and decide to try them on Miss USA. They both accelerate away from me but are cautious and are well wide of the first pylon. I have taken a direct line from the home pylon, when you are allowed to cross the runway edge and start turning in and can see a clear inside pass. By the time we reach the pylon I am slightly ahead and going faster. I seem to have this about right. Miss Min and Quadranickel were in front of me from the second row on the grid and they are well ahead. I refine my line, cope with the turbulence that 5 racers have dumped on the course and keep going as fast as I can. We come 6th. And only Steve Senegal in Endeavour has lapped me. I pull up for a couple of cooling laps and slide on well, and with the tail down, just as I’m down to 30mph or so, the steering stops working and it’s like driving a shopping trolley! I manage to keep her on the runway with differential breaking (heel brakes are such a joy!) taxi off and stop. Silver uniformed firemen with serious expressions rush over. I’m relaxed, leap out and encourage them not to bury Miss USA under a ton of foam. The strut that allows the tail wheel to steer has sheared. No problem, the boys rock up and we decide, let’s put on the racing tail wheel – a rollerblade wheel that cannot be steered at all! “Umm. Great. Let’s just make it harder” I think as the boys set to their new mission. They decide to pump up the main tyres to reduce rolling resistance too….. Great!
That evening the plan is to fly a three ship for air-to-air photos for Keith Wilson from Pilot magazine. This gets the focus onto team FLIRT and on Thom’s meteoric rise through the Reno race classes and off me. It also shows Thom’s journey with the actual aircraft that he has flown in. However, the wind has got up and is strong from the South West, usually it eases as the afternoon wears on, so we stage the three aircraft for pictures and then I decide that it isn’t worth trying a cross wind landing with a roller blade for a tail wheel (that I have never flown with). Thom and Lachie fly and have a good shoot with Keith over Hallelujah junction. On their return a grower of wines who uses a classic aircraft theme to sell his wares asks Kelly & Kellie to poses for photos with the planes. A single photographer turns into 30 guys wielding long lenses and as the sun goes down and the light softens the shutters whir and images are captured. Kelly is amazing, in 40’ hairstyle and a bright red Polo dress that we bought from TJ Max for $15, she radiates classic style and impossible beauty. There are team shots too. It’s all pretty cool. The sun goes down and the girls get cold so it’s time to take them for dinner.
Reno day 5. Still alive. 6th in Gold class today. Day 6 Friday September 16th
Miss Kelly drives me to briefing at 0700 and at the F1 pilots briefing afterwards I offer to join the silver race as well as to fly in the Gold. Funny how a single good start changes everything. We stage at 0845 and start pretty well, a few pulls and she’s running. I let Bill Prodi in No36 lead me round the first 2 laps and then I overtake him and form up on Brian Reberry in race 592, who is a delight to fly with, smooth, accurate and predictable. Bill is outside me and Jethro (Doug Bodine) is at the back. In the straights I form up tight and give him more room due to the turbulence round the pylons. We should have some good shots. I land on 08, the gap seals do make the elevator more effective at low speeds. We roll out to 1 and the boys pick me up with the truck, we refuel and truck back to take off for the Gold heat. The biplanes land and Jethro suggest that we have clown music playing as their landings are so funny. So much like my landing just a few flights ago! We line up, and with Alvarro’s help, get her going after a nerve wracking few minutes. Starting her warm is always hard. Flag down and I’m away. The first 3 aircraft (Endeavour, Scarlet Screamer and Miss Demeanour) are quick and I will not catch them. But Jim in Miss Min & Jay in Quadranickel are close and it does seem that I’m catching them in the first 2 laps. But then they pull away and I’m just going flat out watching the temperatures rise and wondering how long before I need to richen up or maybe pull back the throttle. Steve Senegal passes me and goes low on the straight. I watch his line, which is suitable for a faster plane, and learn a little. Vito passes me in Scarlet Screamer on the last lap and pulls up for the flag, but this time I fly another lap before pulling up (safer for separation). We are 6th again – Bill in N A Rush and Tom in Pooder cannot catch me. Landings are harder with the tyres pumped up so hard but I find that I can steer her when the tail is down despite the unsteerable tail wheel, as long as we are doing more than 20 mph. Once the roller blade wheel is on the tarmac skidding it sideways isn’t easy or very effective unless we are also moving forwards.
Back at the pits we open her up for cooling and an older official drives up to us in a buggy and asks us if we are ready for our Firetruck ride. I explain that Miss USA came 6th, not 1st, and suggest politely that he check with Race control and the timers. He calls them up on the radio and gets a confirmation that Race No. 40, Miss USA, won the gold heat. It’s wrong but hey, why argue? The crew have worked their socks off and we have family with us so they should all experience this. I decide that we should take the trip (Steve Senegal has had so many wins that it’s no novelty to him any more). We load up and take Philip Goforth’s daughter, Izzy, with us. Laughter and smiles all round, blue skies and sunshine – we try to get Thom and Maggie to join us but cannot find them in time. It’s a surreal moment when they announce our “win” in front of the crowd. From not being able to get to Stead to qualify, to this trip on the Firetruck, has indeed been quite a ride. “Not bad for Rookies” becomes a new defined term in our lexicon. But we are all totally and completely unprepared for what came next. The Reno carnival had one more twist to throw at us.
Reno day 5 Galloping ghost, a heavily modified Mustang, flown by Jimmy Leeward, just had a total failure. The trim tab appears to have come off at race power. The resulting pitch up G-locked the pilot and popped the tail wheel. The aircraft impacted the box seating area causing a number of fatalities. We are all accounted for. Looks like the races are going to be cancelled, but we will not know until later. Tragic in many ways. The media will make a complete hash of it of course. A great pity as we had a great day flying in both silver and gold Formula 1 classes, and despite coming 6th in gold, the scorers insisted that we won. I protested but they wanted us to ride the fire truck and wave at the crowd. So we did, to much laughter and amusement all round. Sadly jimmy won’t get to do that again. Maybe nobody will if the air races are shut down. We are all fine – if somewhat shell shocked. SPH Quietly back in our pit we are all in shock. One of the older F1 guys comes up to our pit and tells us “That’s the end of air racing at Reno. Too many civilian deaths”. I get the guys to work on putting the 4 into one exhaust back on the plans with a plan to cut holes in the old cowling and build blisters to make it fit. Steve comes up to me and asks “What are we doing?” he’s emotional. I explain quietly that we are doing something to keep our hands and our heads busy and help us not focus on the tragedy outside. He gets it immediately and is sorry and appreciative of the thought process. Ben’s friends from pilot school join in and so does Julian, giving Kevin a whole troupe of new monkeys to train. Pilots are checking in with their crews and families. People who are missing and found and much to our amazement nobody in F1 was among the casualties. Nor in Precious’ big crew and not Hot Section, who had Bryant as a crew of one, either. We have been very lucky. Philip Goforth’s daughters were very close to the impact but were not hurt and they are wandering around the hangar. I take them back to their parents talking to them quietly. Philip gives me a hug – the girls were so close. I can hardly choke back the tears. Such a tragedy.
Later we step outside for smoke and a beer, Steve has got stuck across the fence, security will not let him back on the airfield and we pass him smokes and cold beer, through the fence and speculate about the future.
Will we ever race again?
Who are the big losers from this? RARA? The insurance companies? The pilots and owners of race planes? The concession stand holders? The owners of hangars and other facilities at Reno?
Nobody wins, but the ripples will spread outwards from the crash site and they are interesting to understand.
No flying on Saturday. The skies over Reno were strangely quiet. TV crews everywhere, but there is no news. Pity that they didn’t come and film the good stuff before the crash. There was no memorial service for Jimmy Leeward, his family didn’t want it to turn into a media circus. Good call. The carnival is being packed up. The ramp is almost deserted. Planes in trailers being towed out and today planes are leaving to fly home. Day 7 Saturday September 17th
The races are over but we still head out to the field for briefing at 1000. Jethro does a great job and holds it all together. He was a B2 and F117 pilot and could fly in any class, but he chooses to fly F1. He’s quietly spoken but carries authority. A professional grief counsellor joins the briefing standing in a big circle in the hangar. We are all advised not to talk to the media, who have set up camp in their big trailers with satellite dishes on the roofs of their RVs in front of the Sport Class hangar. The airfield is closed, only a handful of military aircraft depart as the NTSB does their accident investigation work. More videos and better pictures are now on the net and it is clear that the trim tab detached in flight, the 20g pitch up squashed the pilot onto the control column, popped the tail wheel and buckled the tail section of the fuselage. Of course the trim should be set neutral at race speed to minimise drag, but clearly this was not the case.
I decide to continue my search for a sensible hangar and meet Ken who has the perfect facility for us. Even accommodation and a viewing area. It’s too expensive but I get Thom interested and then show Scott and Mike and finally Lachie. Ken is a hang glider pilot who was a spy in Austria in the early 1970’s and attended the first World hang gliding championship in Kossen in 1974. I like him and his various blondes who attend to him. Maybe a deal can be cooked up, maybe.
Day 8 Sunday September 18th
We meet at the field to plan an air to air shoot with Keith Wilson. The field is closed but Shifty allows us “Test Ops”. The plan is to fly a three ship but Precious isn’t ready so I end up, alone, at 9,000’ over Hallelujah junction again, but in blue skies this time, searching for the camera ship. The T34 rocks up and, despite no comms, we manage a successful shoot with many hand gestures high over the mountains. I land and pack up the trailer, moving all of our stuff there. It isn’t going to be towed back to Florida, despite earlier plans. A few planes leave. Thom does his test flight, successfully, the skies go quiet and its goodbye to Reno 2011.
Final attempt to do an air-to-air shoot was successful this morning. Should be some good shots to add to those of Miss USA going round the pylons. Everyone is much more optimistic that air racing will continue today. We certainly hope to be back racing next year. What happened was tragic in so many ways. But it would be a great shame to lose the freedom to go pylon racing again. Fly low, fly fast, turn left! SPH, pylon racer.
Running the pylons is an amazing flying experience. The actual flying I didn’t find particularly difficult but going fast on a clean line, without climbing or descending at all, and with least deflection of the control surfaces and minimum G, is subtle. The friendship and support are incredible, it’s like joining a whole new extended family. Jimmy’s crash was tragic and I feel awful for the families involved. But it would be a huge shame to lose the ability to race our planes round the pylons once a year. The pilots know the risks, the spectators probably do need to be better protected. I fully expect to be back next year at PRS in June and to race in September.
If you have some formation and aerobatic experience, then you should be there too. It’s not expensive (I didn’t manage to spend more than US$ 20 on a tank of fuel all week) and the experience is unrepeatable. Give me a call and I will help you find a plane and crew. If you aren’t going to race in 2012, then ask yourself when? It’s certainly in my top 10 lifetime experiences and, although not for the faint heated, for real pilots and a few true aviators, it is not to be missed.