Home The 2014 Reno Adventure

The 2014 Reno Adventure


The 2014 Reno Adventure has started:

Day 15.  Final day. Gold races.

Formula 1 Gold race:

We brief as usual and pull out as the backup for the F1 Gold final.  If one of the eight racers goes tech or fails to start in time, then we will be sent into the race to ensure that a full complement of eight planes race.  We did this in 2012, so we know the drill.  It’s harder to be motivated as there is less than a 50/50 chance that we will actually get to fly.  But we all do our bit and sitting in the cockpit with the engine roaring away at max power, fully leaned and ready to go, I’m mentally and physically ready.

But Reno has a way of kicking you just when everything seems to be finally working out as it should.  Just to get a plane and a team here, to operate for a week, to qualify and then to compete takes huge logistical and emotional commitment.   Equipment, teams and pilots all routinely get broken and if any one component fails then you don’t get to race.  I’m pretty happy that we have been effective, the team has worked really well, the plane has been put back together and we have competed in every race, and, as the “stick wiggler”, I have screwed up properly only once.

All eight racers start and when the green flag drops, they all go off and race.  I pull the mixture and climb out.  There isn’t much emotion from the team.  We watch the race, pull her into the hangar to strip her down, and, as we won Silver, have to go through a tech inspection once again.  When this formality is completed we break down the pit and pack everything away in the trailer.  We do a purge of old parts and unused bits from previous campaigns; throwing away tired, broken, unused and obsolete parts that we aren’t ever going to use again.  The trailer and van could do without having to drag any extra weight around.

We have the wing safely stowed in the trailer and are about to load the fuselage, with the engine filled with oil, desiccant plugs to keep her dry and prevent rust, plastic bags wrapped round the engine extremities.  She looks sad without her wing, a tiny, broken bird, no longer a thoroughbred racer.  Mark and Blade are turning the prop to make sure that there is oil everywhere and they notice something.  There is a spot with a little friction.  They spin the prop again and again, the mags clicking furiously (they seem to want to make sparks and send us off racing again), feeling for the problem.  The oil filter is pulled and cut into pieces to reveal tiny sparkles – the motor is making metal.  They have found the lost 150-200 rpm.  We conclude that a bearing is blown.  Probably as a result of the magneto hitting the back of the engine when we tipped up at Beckworth.  It’s not bad news, in fact it is good news on a number of counts.  First we have found he source of our power problem.   Next we didn’t put her away broken, expecting to be perfect when we next pull her out again.  And I didn’t find out in the sky; at full power, on the racecourse, with seven other planes nearby.  It would have most likely resulted in a “proper” engine failure, both more expensive and more dangerous, although with three runways within easy reach it’s not such a big deal, to climb and then land her dead stick.  And we haven’t damaged the cylinders or pistons  (I’m learning to love the borescope!) so it will not be an expensive fix, only a few hours labour and a new bearing – at least that is what we all hope for.  Julian and I drive her down to Kieran’s house in Loomis where she will stay for a few weeks until we decide who does what next.

Unlimited Gold race:In the Unlimited briefing this morning Tiger was asked to leave so that the other pilots could decide what to do about him being busted for flying Strega both too high (the max altitude is 250 feet) and too low (below 50 feet) yesterday.  He refused to leave – after all he is seven times Unlimited champion.  The pilots didn’t know what to do or say.  So he waited for a few minutes while they struggled, then said, “Boys, I’m broken.  I just wanted to watch you squirm.”  Classic Tiger.  So Strega’s out.  We saw the only Voodoo vs. Strega clash yesterday.

In the Unlimited Gold race Rare Bear Maydays out as his ADI indicator told Stu Dawson that he wasn’t getting any Anti detonation injection (a mixture of ethanol and water to prevent the fuel air mixture exploding prematurely) essential at these power setting – the Merlin’s run up to 150 inches of manifold pressure!  As it happened the system was working – it was only the indication that was at fault – but he didn’t want to risk blowing up his engine.   Voodoo was chased by the Yak 11, Czech mate, for the entire race, the Yak getting a right kicking from Voodoo’s dirty air.   Leaving Thom in Precious Metal third and the Seafuries 4th and 5th.  That’s Precious’ best result ever (5th last year and 7th in Thom’s first year with her two years ago).  The entire team is jubilant and I congratulate Thom – he is truly living his dream!  He confides that he couldn’t pump up any more power as she was detonating on him….  More R&D required.

But, this is Reno, it’s never over.   The FAA decides to DQ him for a line cut – one of their guys claims that he broke one of the safety lines (set to protect the crowd) and so he is out and there will be no prize money for him.  The entire crew are gutted.  I go and see Phil, Thom’s crew chief, who works with us in UK, and take him to one side, shake his hand and tell him that he delivered a third placed unlimited racer at Reno and he and his team of engineers should be really proud of that achievement.  And not to get disheartened by the politics and nonsense of the FAA.   Thom has video to prove that he didn’t cross the line – but they will not see it.  The FAA’s decision is final.  But no doubt that we haven’t heard the last of this.  It’s too important both for Thom and for the credibility of RARA as an event operator

So, as usual, we all leave Reno Stead airfield on the last day exhausted, emotionally drained and dissatisfied.  I wonder, “Is the reason we come back simply because it is so bloody hard?”  Maybe.  As to win at Reno requires all the stars to be in alignment, a lot 0f effort and a fair dose of luck too.

Did we achieve our objectives?We had an adventure, no doubt about it.  We worked our asses off – the engineers and Kelly, even more than me, for sure.  And, yes, somehow we did manage to get a fire-truck ride at the perfect time when all of our friends and supporters joined us.  So mission accomplished.  But would it have been easier to rent a villa or a boat somewhere wonderful, to lie in the sunshine and read some good books?  Enjoy some good food and great wine with friends and family?  Easier, yes, undoubtedly.  Would that have been as memorable or would we have all learned so much or had real adventures with such great people?  I doubt it.  This kind of holiday is about pushing and stretching everyone and everything, rather than relaxing.  It’s certainly not for everyone.

What have we learned?From Stu Dawson, the Texan pilot of Rare Bear, That the plural of “Y’all”, which he peppers every sentence with, is “All y’all’s.”

From Tiger, Strega’s pilot, that the game is always being played, even when you aren’t in it.And from Thom, that air racing at Reno cannot be a disease, as there is no cure.  It’s an addiction that can only be fed by the “Need for speed”.

As Blade succinctly put it, as we stood in the jet way to board the flight home, “Reno is a lot like giving birth.  After a few moths all memory of the pain and anguish has gone and most mothers want another baby”.

Like it or not, we are probably addicts, so we have little choice but to go back, even if right now it is the furthest thing from our minds.

Fly fast, fly low, turn left.


Stick Wiggler.


Day 14.  Silver.

 The quickest way from Starbucks to the parking lot is through the maze of a thousand slot machines in the Casino.  Each makes its own siren call of jingly musak.  Tiny bubbles of annoying electronic noise that you pass through, from one to the next, as you try to escape from the maze.  On top of this is background piped music of classic pop songs, intended to appeal to the widest demographic audience, overlaying the sounds emanating from the one armed bandits.  The cacophony of noise is supposed to entice you to gamble, to adjust your risk profile, to put money into the machines.  It’s the same 24 hours a day in the casino.  There is no daylight, no perspective, time runs by without anyone realising what they are losing.

Personally I don’t understand it.  Don’t we all know that the house always wins?  Isn’t that why there are so many of these machines?  I don’t understand any of the games, which buttons to press and why.  And so I don’t think that I have any impact over the outcome.  You could say that I don’t feel in control in any sense.

In contrast, inside the race plane I do have control.  In fact my ability to control her, to make her do as I ask, firmly but politely, determines not only if I win or lose the race, but also if I break her and if I get hurt.  This type of control is real and compelling.  So unlike the casino.  And I also have a better view; of the race course, of the mountains, of life itself, and all in glorious daylight too.

The Silver race.

Chet has been bumped up to Gold so I get to chose second in Silver and opt for the middle of the front row next to Mike in 33, who has pole.  The team has concluded that we were running a little rich yesterday so we lean a bit more aggressively today.  She sounds good, the team give me the thumbs up and clear the runway at 2 minutes, I take a deep breath and start to wind her up.

Green flag down and we are scooting away ahead of Mike in 33.  Excellent.  I let her slide a little to my left and then track straight, so he cannot get past me without going into to desert.  We lift off and settle into ground effect accelerating well.  Into the first pylon and the shadows, weaker due to a thin layer of cirrus, are behind me.  Drive hard and keep a low tight line for a lap and then start easing out moving more dirty air into a defensive line.  She’s turning 4,000 rpm, much better, but also running hotter so I add a couple of twists of mixture after 4 laps and add a few more feet of altitude.  On the other side of the course there is a right old battle going on between Philip and Mike.  Good – let them slow each other up!  Dave in Last lap player, 15, is the back marker and is filling the sky with rocks again.  I chose when I’m going to take him on the home straight, diving down for a nice tight pass right by home pylon.  Then white flag, one lap to go and drive her round at a safety first altitude.  Round the last pylon, dive down onto the line, get the chequered flag and pull up into cool down.  We achieved 221.85 mph.

Relax and count the other planes and listen to their radio calls as they leave the race course and climb into the cool down pattern.  The cool down is possibly the most dangerous part of the race, I track them all carefully and then drop down to slide her on.  Stay alert throughout the rollout, she’s entirely capable of tying herself in a knot if she gets the opportunity and it would be a real shame to make a mess of her now.  Turn off past the F22s and Patriot jet team.  The crew are waving and applauding.  I pull the mixture, probably for the last time this year and roll across the ramp to them.  Job done.  Hand shakes, hugs and backslaps all round.  We drive slowly past the fans – all the pilots are told to sit on the wing (and not fall off..) and do a lot of waving…  Then its time to get the rest of the team and ride the 1917 fire truck waving at the crowd and on live TV.  Kevin tells me that Emma is watching this with Temperence back at home.  Lots of hand shakes, and compliments – the other pilots are amazingly generous and magnanimous.  The team is thrilled as there is a good chance that we may get to fly in the Gold heat tomorrow.  In truth I’m a bit embarrassed by all the attention.  I’m only the stick wiggler – the crew made this possible – I just did my bit without screwing up too badly.

At Stead the circus is in full swing with the non-race performers doing their displays between the races.  We watch them display, the jet powered Waco biplane and the F22 Raptor are favourites among the crew as they are simply “so wrong”, between working on the plane and selling the occasional T shirt and temporary tattoos of our team icon; Miss USA/Miss Kelly.

News vans with strange shapes dishes on the roofs and their good looking vacuous crews arrive.  We are connected to the rest of the world after all.  How strange – Reno feels like a tiny bubble of space-time lost in the 1950’s.  There is a sudden influx of school children in matching uniforms, poking and prodding and asking dumb questions.  The fast food vendors are busy and the aroma of BBQ sauce wafts through the pits making us feel hungry.  It is hot, dry and more than a little dusty.  I suddenly find myself wondering how the furry people are faring – until I remember that I real don’t care.

Thom is flying in the Silver Unlimited Heat.  He gets ahead of a pair of Seafuries and stays there, lapping the Tiger Cat and achieving a comfortable win.  Precious Metal is running much better, despite the oil pouring out of the breather tube.  He didn’t use more than about half power.  Game on for the Gold heat tomorrow!

Blade is called for by Swabones, one of the Seafuries, to help them with a hyrdraulic problem.  The last I see of him are the soles of his feet disappearing into the glory hole underneath the belly – to emerge later smelling of hydraulic fluid, sweat and 160LL with a satisfied “I can fix anything” smile.  Sawbones is fixed and she is ready to compete in the Gold heat.

Its hot as hell out in the pits today as the cirrus has cleared leaving no protection from the sun, but we all go out to watch the Gold heat, where Strega and Voodoo and Rare Bear will all compete head to head for the first time.  Steve Hinton in Voodoo is in inside pole position as they come down the chute with Tiger in Strega on the outside having just been bumped up from Silver – the same route to the Gold heat that Thom will take tomorrow.  Voodoo holds the lead and Strega slowly winds up the power until they are neck and neck at home pylon.  Nobody knows who won.  An excellent warm up for tomorrow.  But later we find that Strega was busted for high flying and low flying – so Tiger will be drawn outside Thom in Gold tomorrow.

The blondetourage crusies the pits in their pimped up buggies and does a photo shoot at the Tiger Cat, Miss Kelly’s favourite plane.  We take Miss USA out for a photo shoot as the sun goes down, attend the Formula 1 “banquet” (hardly) and end the day with a live band at Precious Metal’s pit.  Not a bad day after all and tomorrow we are fill in for the Gold heat if one of the airplanes goes tech or cannot start.

Day 13.  3rd race day

Bob Hoover is old and in a wheel chair now, but as sharp and funny as ever.  He has amazing recall of his exploits 70 years ago.  Our group is getting bigger with 18 of us for dinner and we still have more to join us.  The pit is going to be busy!

In the shower this morning I find a circular bruise in the heel of my left hand.  It’s exactly the size of the throttle, so proof of commitment if nothing else and gives the engineers a good laugh.  I think of it as a measure of my frustration.

I expect Chet in Miss Demeanour to beat me to the first pylon and maybe Mike in 33 too.  But they both tend to fly wide and erratic lines (I did too in my first season) so maybe if I can fly a tight and accurate inside line I can catch them.  We’ll see.

We fire up in the middle of the front row and are leaned and ready with time to spare.  My tiny, cramped and sharp edged “office” is becoming familiar, if not exactly comfortable.  At least it isn’t too bad sitting in it here on the ground with the engine leaned and ready.  But it is about to get bumpy, hot and very noisy indeed too.

We are slow to accelerate and both of the other two planes get away from me.  They are pretty tight on the first pylon and I’m not catching them yet.  Relax, breathe, hold a steady line and try to store some altitude if the lower inside line isn’t going to work.  Chet is flying high and throwing rocks at me on the higher line that the crew wanted me to fly and Mike is doing the same on the lower line too.  We are a little quicker when we fly the lower line but I am also having to wrestle her to stay in control and this is costing speed.  We are getting 238 mph True Air Speed on the back straight – but only turning 3,950 rpm.  We need to be at 4,150 rpm to get max power.  I try to fly as smooth and clean a line as possible to avoid the lumpy air to get Mike in 33 into a position to pass him.  I can get close but not close enough to set up a pass.  Each time we get bounced around and slowed down.  It simply isn’t happening.  We end up in 3rd.  The guys plan to play “musical propellers” and to put on the 65” prop, with lower pitch to help accelerate us faster and spin quicker to use all our available horsepower.

We prep her as usual and Mark gets inside the engine again with the boroscope.  We suddenly realise that the only real changes we have made since we came back from Beckworth are to put vinyls all over the aeroplane and to stick some weight in the nose.  Both are removed.  Mark is very sad about removing Miss Kelly from underneath the right wing.  I just hope that someone has a photo.

Thom races in the Unlimited silver heat with Strega, which has not progressed to the Gold heat as Tiger, Strega’s owner and pilot, cut a pylon yesterday.  Thom does well and comes a comfortable second, allowing Tiger to progress to the Gold tomorrow and hopefully Precious will win Silver tomorrow and compete in the Gold on Sunday.

The blondetourage cranks up and we have to retrieve them from Precious’ pit where the post-race party is in full swing.

No soldier will be left behind!


Day 12, 2nd day of racing

I have choice of start position and so select inside front of the grid.  We are quietly optimistic that this will work out well.  Steve Temple in Madness is on the back of the silver heat grid having been busted out of Gold for low flying yesterday.  He’s a talented pilot but impetuous.  Madness is fast aircraft with a clean airframe and high aspect ratio wing.  Let’s hope that he is stuck in traffic and that I can get out in front from the start.  The problem is going to be getting to the first pylon ahead of Chet in Miss Demeanour, drawn front middle, and Philip in Knotty Girl, who is on the outside front row.  They both accelerate well, so I’m hoping that Chet, who is new at this game, will take a wide line and keep Philip out of my way.

She starts first swing and we lean her carefully, with both Mark & Blade listening to the change in pitch.  She sounds good.  I’m ready.  Green flag down and we are away – but already both of the planes outside me are moving forwards relative to Miss USA.  As we skip over the edge of the runway past home pylon I can see that we are going to be third out of three to arrive at the first pylon.  Bugger – the big prop bites so much air that we accelerate slowly.  No worries I think, we’ll get them after we spool up.  Two laps later I’m still right on their wingtips, being awfully patient, when Madness cruises by me.  Philip Maydays out with a leaking fuel tank and petrol sloshing round his cockpit.  “Better” I think, as he was being a very annoying block and with Chet flying a wide line I know that I can get him, given enough time.  Maybe we can get back to second.  But there simply are not enough laps left.  Coming round pylon 6 onto the home straight I’m inside him and he is wide and high, but he can use his height to dive onto home pylon and I don’t have enough straight line speed to take him.  Oh well.  Up into cool down and decent landing, deeper up the runway ahead of the hump at A3.

The whole crew, family and supporters are there as we roll onto the ramp by the pair of F22 Raptors and wave at us.  I’m disappointed not to have done better.  We have lost some power since last week and Mark spends most of the day trying to diagnose what has gone wrong.  We think the special cooling coatings on the pistons may have worn off, so he spends a lot of the rest of the day on the phone to LyCon.

Since we have done everything we can to her, we decide to take the day off and watch the air shows and other classes race.  The jet powered Waco biplane is a hoot and the aerobatics are first class, but the Raptor display is truly great.  Thom wins the bronze Unlimited heat and will progress to Silver tomorrow.  Precious Metal isn’t delivering full power as he has a problem with the supercharger and may not be able to get close to full power later in the week….

Then prep her for tomorrow and head to the GSR to meet Bob Hoover and dinner.


Day 11.  Wednesday.  1st day of racing.

The Formula 1 class is the direct descendent of the pre-war racing classes when racers were faster than military aircraft.  The standards were set in the 50’s to create a class of affordable aircraft that could be built and tested by enthusiastic amateurs.  Today only a few people are brave enough to build wholly new aircraft, as this is an expensive and time consuming proposition.  Not to mention the risk of flying an untried, untested, entirely experimental aircraft.  And the rewards don’t remotely justify the time, money and effort.  So most pilots buy existing planes and work to improve them.  As to fly at 250 mph (faster that a Formula 1 grand prix car) using only a tiny motor at 50’ over the sage brush is possibly one of the coolest and satisfying experiences (outside of family) that as pilots we can ever experience.

Briefing 0700.  Shifty tells us that the Gold heat tomorrow is going to take place immediately after the opening ceremony (nobody gets here in time to see us at 0800!).  Phillip Goforth leaps to has feet and shouts “That’s what I’m talking about!!” and the whole room bursts out laughing, while Phillip high 5’s the Formula 1 pilots within range.   “How many red Bull’s this morning Philip?” asks Shifty calmly, restoring order, he is the Airboss after all.  “Only 4” replies Philip with a smile.

There is a final qualifying session at 0800, which I don’t need, but we agree that its more time on the course and on the engine and so I join the 3 guys yet to qualify and Kevin in Miss U, who has now balanced Jay’s 67” prop and needs airtime with it.

The first of the three qualifyers climbs into cool down and I’m away onto the course.  Kevin joins a lap later.  The new throttle cable is super smooth, so smooth in fact that the vibration lets it off full pressure.  By the time I figure out that we have more power available and tighten the throttle friction Miss U is half a lap ahead, but Miss Demeanour is right on my wing tip, and I spend the next three laps stopping him from passing me before he climbs out into cool down, more than a little frustrated.  We are turning 51 second laps and indicating 238 mph True Air Speed on the back straight.  Not too bad in the cold morning air.  We refuel, boroscope the cylinders and change to race oil.  Break in is complete.

I go for a walk to the Precious Metal pit and chat with Thom and Scott, his engine man, who are trying to decide what to do about Precious Metal’s engine problem yesterday.  We chat through options, Thom makes his decision and calls his team in for a briefing.  There are 15 of us in the trailer and he tells them the good news; that they haven’t qualified but can start at the bottom and work their way through to be in Gold by Sunday.  Then he shows the video of the Mayday yesterday – talking it through calmly and with good humour.  Then the bad news; this is going to be a rest day, which is a really strange concept for an unlimited team who are used to working until they drop, until 2030 this evening when an existing carb will be flown in by Brendan from Florida and they will work all night to fix it.  They almost seem to be relived….  I wander out to tell Mac, Thom’s girlfriend, that she needs to take him to get some sleep this afternoon.

I promised the crew three things; an adventure like no other, a ton of hard work with late nights and less sleep than is good for anyone, and, with a little luck, a ride on the fire truck.  The fire truck is vintage 1920’s and is used to parade winning crews in front of the fans.  So far we have managed to ride it every year we have raced.  Our best shot is to win a silver heat early on.  Maybe today.  We stage at 1130 and race at 1210.

Down at the end of runway 08 we wait while the silver Unlimited’s take off, do a few laps on the course and then come into land right by us.  Pretty cool backdrop for a formula 1 race, complete with the smell of 160LL Avgas and sage brush from the high desert.  I’m 5th slowest in qual, so I get to chose where I line up on the grid 5th.  The first 3 take the front row of the grid.  Philip who qualified 4th would normally chose inside on the second row, but knows that aircraft in front are slow and that he accelerates quickly, so her goes outside, leaving me with inside on the second row.  Not ideal.

We line up and strap in and she – will – not – start….  Nightmares of 2011.  And then Mark winds her back, Blade pops her and she roars into life.  There is just time to warm her oil, and lean for max rpm.  Red flag, Green flag at one minute, set full power with 15 seconds to start and hold her on the brakes.  Flag down and away.  Acceleration is good.  Philip is sliding right to get round the outside of the traffic ahead by the first pylon.  I realise that I’m not going to get through any other way so I start tracking right on one wheel until I can lift her off and then accelerate in ground effect at about 6” off the runway.  I’m catching the front 3 and Philip who is nicely ahead of me providing space (no worries, I’m going to catch him later) is starting his turn into pylon 1.  We hit some gnarly turbulence and I get slammed back on the ground and bounced up about 20’.  Bugger that, I’m now high enough to roll in too and follow Philip into the 4 aircraft melee ahead.

The first pylon is mayhem with rocks in the sky and the new boys all over the shop.  Philip pulls out quickly and I have to pull up to avoid him.  Then round pylons 2 & 3 and dive smoothly back to race height down the back straight.  Philip flys a tight line but I have to stack on him for 3 laps at 56 seconds a lap before I can make a neat pass.  Then two faster laps without any blockage in my way (52 seconds, about 232 mph) to reel in the two new boys, who are well wide of the racing line.

We are getting close as we come down the back straight making a pass possible soon.  They go wide as I come round pylon 5 and I can see a slow plane in last place just ahead of them – the door is wide open, I have good closing speed and they are in orbit, so I drive through the gap on the inside and lap the tail marker on the outside just ahead of the flag.   Pull up into cool down for one orbit and slide her on.  Job done.  We didn’t win, so no fire truck ride but the patience to get past Philip and the double inside pass was described by everyone as “a really sexy move”.  The crew are delighted.  I didn’t screw up.  Actually I did OK.  We are first on the grid tomorrow – so the fire truck ride is still possible.

The crew celebrate by retiming the mags for more power, cleaning up the aerodynamics on the cowl and pumping the tyres to 92 psi, so landing will be impossible.  Brian arrives with the new pop, Blade fits her and we run here as the sun goes down in the soft evening light.  She turns 3,000 rpm static.  We have pole tomorrow in the silver heat and friends and family arrive tonight.  Early night.  Game on.


Day 10

There is a full moon over the Sierra’s as I drive to Stead before sunrise and the sky is full of smoke from the fires in Yosemite.  Our day is darkened on more than one count.  Briefing is sombre.  We all know what happened yesterday.  “Shifty” the Airboss runs the briefing of about 100 people for the Formula 1 and Biplane classes; pilots, timers, safety, fire, met, logistics, comms, with a light touch.  He tells us that we don’t need to fly if we don’t feel like it.  To take time if we need it.  He has lost a good friend of many years who practically built the Sport class.  The Head of Safety asks for a moment of silence, baseball and cowboy hats come off, heads are bowed and then Shifty tells us to “Go fly.  Be careful out there”.

We have already qualified (slowly) so we let those who haven’t recorded a time yet go first.  The biplanes are also ahead of us so we have time to prep.  Miss USA has her new tail boot built and ready and so we tow her out to A3 behind Julian’s 4Runner.  She is taped up and the wheel pants are on, so with the 65” prop we expect much more than yesterday.

The first group of pilots climbs out into the cool down and I’m the tail end of the second group.  She feels better on the take off roll and in flight the controls seem to be trimmed perfectly.  She’s much improved and after 5 laps I pull up off he course having overtaken one of the slower aircraft easily.  Lap time was 51 seconds, 223 mph – much better than yesterday and mercifully I haven’t screwed up.  The whole team is delighted – we are back where we should be and we still have much more to do to her.

Miss U had the prop backing plate fail on the zoom climb into cool down after the time on the course.  This trashed the prop, but she still ran, so Kevin is now looking for a new prop.  Jay comes over and agrees that Kevin should take his 67” prop on the “you break it you buy it” principle.  Phil is also looking for a prop for Knotty Girl as his isn’t giving him enough top speed – she takes off fast but then runs out of puff.  So he may take my 65” when Brian turns up with the replacement 68”.  Prop changes for everyone!

The pit is a hive of activity as usual – the new throttle cable has turned up so this is fitted (the old one was very sticky – but it wasn’t too much a of a problem as I really only use two power settings, on and off), the mags are re-timed (we were effectively racing on one mag and had practically no drop on the left mag), the two EGT sensors that weren’t working are replaced, the plugs cleaned, the cylinders are boroscoped while the plugs are out – the break in process has gone well – everything is re-taped and polished.  Julian completes setting up the Miss USA website and you can find it at: www.missusaairracing.com  Enjoy!

We break to watch the Unlimited’s practice.  Rare Bear is howling past and clocks 477mph round the course.  Strega, Vodoo (both Mustangs), Argonaut and Sawbones (both Sea Fury’s) are all going well.  Precious Metal, Thom Richard’s heavily modified Mustang isn’t ready yet – but he is quietly confident.

After lunch in the pit we are all out to watch the Unlimited’s again.  Thom blasts off and the entire crew of Team FLIRT (the Florida International Racing Team – Thom’s starter attempt at having a plane compete in each class – we have 3, Thom, Lachie in the Jets and me in the baby class) cheer him on.  Hard to describe the emotion of watching Thom take, Precious Metal, his dream, airborne.  As pilots we know that the banana has been passed to the monkey, the pressure is off the crew and now it is his turn to not screw up.

Thom comes by for three laps increasing the power and speed steadily.  She sounds amazing!  We are all pumped.  Then he pulls up at the back of the course, calls Mayday, and does a very steep descent onto runway 14 with his prop blades practically stopped.  Feather pump I think immediately.  Thom and I discussed the location of that big red button a couple of days ago when he was showing me their new systems – ideally it is dead centre of the panel, so that you hit it with your helmet when the blades go flat and she decelerates like God has slammed on the brakes.  Thom does some steep turns to get lined up on 14, lands her and rolls an awful long way before he disappears from view.  We find out later that he had no brakes and had to do some tight turns and finally ground loop her to stop.  No idea yet what the problem was and I don’t want to compound Thom’s problems by asking for an explanation.  He’s busy enough now and there’s every chance that his entire crew will be up all night too.

Another classic day at Reno.  An emotional roller coaster from start to finish.


Day 9

Over dinner we all comment on the last of the furry people who was in the Starbucks this morning, talking to himself and clearly unphased by the absence of his many furry brethren.  He was wearing an orange coat made of long fibre fur, a bit like deep pile neon orange axminster on steroids (who knows what else lives in there with him?), and a Napoleonic infantry soft hat with a long feather.  Tucked into the corner, mumbling into his long beard, battered rucksack at his feet, I couldn’t help wondering where he was headed and what was in store for him today.

For us we are headed to Stead and its time on the course and qualification.  We have the wrong prop and the wheel pants are still curing in the van (our carbon fibre kiln).  So I’m actually pretty happy to qualify slow and then to work through the traffic in the heats.  That will give me more practice at passing and may offer the opportunity to run in both the silver and gold heats.

We brief at 0700, stage at 0730 and the first three racers are out on the course at 0800 precisely.  I go 5th and to my surprise have the course pretty much to myself as aircraft fail to start, take too long to warm up or decide to land at the same time.  The lights are on pylons 1, 2 & 4 and all the pylons are up, making getting a decent line much easier than yesterday.  It takes most of the first lap to accelerate close to race speed and a couple more laps for the engine to be properly warm (thinner oil creates less drag inside the motor).  I call Race control to “request the clock”, affirm this with a wing rock on the back straight and the starter waves a white flag at home pylon to confirm that they are timing this lap.  We are woefully slow but the line is decent and we complete the lap in 56.907 seconds at an average speed of 201 mph.  As the morning warms up and the air becomes less dense, higher speeds will be possible, but that’s not our goal this morning.  Two more laps for practice and its zoom into the overhead for one orbit of cool down and set up to land.  All good and roll out at A2.  Nothing broken – not even the tail wheel.  Debrief with the boys, while we watch three of the faster aircraft battle it out on the course and refuel her again.  The left roll is less pronounced and the push force at full speed is reduced – we are about half way there in getting the trim right.

The boys declare another “arts and crafts day”, Mark is going to apply the scallops to the new fin as they couldn’t be done by the vinyl makers because we didn’t have finished measurements then and he changes the tail and wing settings again.  Torque is fabricating a boot for the ventral fin so we can tow the plane behind the truck or buggy.  Blade is finishing rebuilding the wheel pants and we decide to return Jay’s prop and run the 65” in practice tomorrow.  He has been speaking to tech about the blisters in our 65” prop and we agree that we can run it for the next two days with little risk, but to be aware of the possibilities of harmonic vibrations around 3,800 rpm.

We decide it would be a good idea to try and have a test flight this evening with the 65” to put some more time on the engine.  3 out of 4 cylinders are broken in – but one is still “wet”.  So, subject to weather and clearance from race control, we will do test ops this evening after “last racer on deck”.

Miss Kelly makes a breakfast run and we start working on the plane and finish building the pit, ready for visitors and our friends who are coming out to support us…

Miss Kelly has started recruiting for the Junior or Apprentice Blondetourage.  She is being followed everywhere by a group of small girls, daughters of fellow pilots, who it seems are already out hunting “cute boys”.  I’m instructed to take them for a drive on the buggy and they get a class in aeroplane recognition, driving etiquette and having fun at Reno.

We are working away in the pits in mid afternoon when we hear the news that one of the Sport class has gone in.  There is a moment of quiet while we digest this awful news.  We have lost one of our own.  We all pause, reflect and continue with what we were doing, for therapy as much as anything else.  I’m as determined as ever not to die in a plane but in my own bed, as a very old man.  At an age when may family will probably all want me dead, and me at a stage of my life when I really don’t care too much anymore.   Until then life is for living.


Day 8

 I was too tired to remember to write down two important events in yesterday’s diary.

 The night before last Mark joined us at dinner on day 6 at GSR, having driven direct from Vancouver.  After dinner he went to the airfield to collect Blade.  The two of them continued working on the plane until 0130.  Amazing.  Thom came over to my pit yesterday and I mentioned the talent, enthusiasm and support from the guys to him.  His crew numbers 30 volunteers and he summed it up a few short words.  “I will never be able to repay them for the support I receive”.  Hard to explain but too true.

The new scheme on the plane has a photo of Miss Kelly, wrapped in a USA flag, as our icon, on both sides of the tail.   Traditionally there were painted images on the noses of WWII bombers, but the nose of Miss USA is simply too small for any image that would be visible from the ground, so we put them on the tail.  She had to be persuaded and didn’t really want to do it and, to be honest, she is a bit embarrassed.  But, hey, we only got married last year, I adore her and she’s simply SO lovely.  And having got this image on the plane it occurred to me that we should have some fun with it.  An icon should be iconic – right?

I knew that she wouldn’t be happy, so it had to be done so that she couldn’t change it – and so we had a 5 foot high version of our Miss USA icon stuck under the wing too.  Just in the perfect place to be seen as Miss USA is banked up and rounding a pylon.  Of course the boys told the entire hangar – I think everyone knew except her.  And my idea was that the first time that she would see it when I was doing my re-qualifying circuits as I would be safely out of harms way and she would have time to calm down by the time I landed.  But she asked why we only had our race number (40) on the top of one wing and went to look under the wings and she found a 5’ image of herself.  It took a little while for her to calm down but I think she realised that I only did it because I love her.  The pictures tell the story.  I told her that there were more surprises coming, so she might be prepared for the two 6’ cardboard cut outs of her that are standing by the plane and the six smaller ones that are now scattered around the pit.  Not to mention the T shirts with this image on the back that the entire team are now wearing.  Or the polo shirts, or the temporary tattoos…..

Briefing at 0620 was familiar, we were out by A3 at 0745, dressed in “mans clothing” (fire retardant everything) and Miss USA started on Blade’s first swing of the prop.  A quick stop n’ go on the runway to prove control then up to 1,000’ above the runway to demonstrate aileron rolls in both directions and a roll to inverted and reversal.  The engine coughs horribly and some smoke comes out when you do the reversal because there is no inverted fuel or oil system.  She is still well out of trim, pitching up and left but I’m not having to push quite so hard.  We are headed in the right direction in getting her trimmed for racing.

Then drop down onto the backside of the course and start to practice going round the pylons. Pylons 1 & 2 are not up yet, but there are pylons for the big boys course up instead, so it takes a while to find where “our” pylons are, on their sides lying in the dirt and to get into the racing line.  I’m a bit rusty but it starts to come back.  After 6 laps I pull up to demonstrate a practice emergency and glide to the runway.  No problems, clean landing, so spool up and back out for some more laps.  This feels more like a racing start, low over the sage brush and straight into the course. The engine is performing fine but not developing the rpm we need to go fast.  220mph at 3,800 rpm is all I can get out of her.  Not bad – at 50’ with a solid 50 gallon oil can on a telegraph pole off your wingtip – but not fast enough.

Then its time to pull up, check the mags in the zoom climb, and circuit to land.  The radio is better since Mark put a ground to the aerial, but you cannot hear anything over the engine at full power anyway.  Good landing, protect the tail wheel, fast side, slow side of the runway, taxi off and shut down.  We need a new prop.

I have to attend the mass in-brief at 1000 and the pilots are stuck in there being drilled on procedures, radio, daily ops, diverts, safety etc. for 2 ½ hours.  By the time I get out the boys have changed the tail and put washers under the trailing edge of the right wing to improve the trim.  The wheel pants that met rather more of California than was good for them have been repaired and are in the Church van (being “cooked” – its hot as hell in there).  The Miss Kelly cut outs are already spread around the pit, adorning other people’s aeroplanes.

I thought that we were close to being ready to fly this morning when we left the hangar last night – but now the boys tell me that they were at Walmart buying supplies at 0145.  I got 5 hours sleep, they had less.  Again.  We need to schedule a rest day.

Blade has also found out how many of the fast race props that I broke were made and were they all are.  He puts out feelers and finds one available at a sensible price.  We will have it by Wednesday.  I expected this would happen but am quietly delighted that it has happened so quickly.  I tell Jay that we cannot turn his prop, he says simply “There’s no need for you to have it”.   A gentleman.

My brother, Julian, and sister in law Christine arrive from San Diego with props for the pit; a million Miss USA T shirts, polos and girly tank tops, and add their own version of Reno madness to the pit.

I insist that we close the pit at 1830 and have a team Mexican.  We all need proper food and sleep.  We are qualified to race, but tomorrow we start time trials.


Day 7


Blade, Mark and I meet at Starbucks at 0700 and walk into the early morning sunshine to see the most wonderful sight.  About 40 multi coloured hot air balloons are launching across the valley.  It’s the annual Reno balloon competition.  Bubbles of propane heated air silently climbing into the sunlight…  We all stand and pause to take in the sight.

Our day is spent registering with RARA and getting the aircraft “teched” (checked for compliance with the class rules).  These two activities combine to reinforce one of the immutable laws of aviation, that the weight of the paperwork must exceed the weight of the aircraft, or it will not fly….

RARA checks compliance with registration, pilot currency and certification, collects money for everything they provide (RV hook ups, parking, crew passes, visitors passes) and the tech team measures the volume of the cylinders and shape of the cams to make sure that we haven’t done any illegal mods to the engine.  The fuel tank is emptied and re-filled to make sure that we can carry 5 gallons of fuel (cost US$ 35!). There is almost no flying today as everyone has to go this process – its dull but necessary.

We survive registration and pass tech, but our weight and balance is out and we have to add weight to the nose to get the centre of gravity back in the right place.  Frustrating as we have been trying to make her (and me) lighter all year.   I’m sent off to buy lead shot to put in the nose (since I’m the least useful in the pits) and I collect Ben “Torque” Wilson who has flown in from Texas to join us for the week.  He isn’t even allowed to go to the hotel and check in – but is dragged straight to the pits and put to work!  We are all pleased to see him again and to have another cheerful, resilient, like-minded soul with us on this journey.

We close the cowlings up and take her out into the darkness for an engine run.  Its 2200 so Kelly gets the car to shine some light on us so we can see what we are doing.  She starts on Blade’s first swing and after warming the oil I run her up to see what she will do with Jay’s new prop on the nose.  Not enough.  Max static is only 2,800 rpm -  she did over 3,000 with the prop I broke.  Then there is smoke coming out of the cowling.  I shut down the engine, switch off the fuel and mags and climb out of the cockpit quickly – just in case we have an engine fire on our hands.  We are armed with one small fire extinguisher and no screwdrivers.  Mark takes the car to collect tools.  We stand in the darkness and wonder how bad this problem is going to be.  But it’s only some oil spilled when we checked the oil level earlier.

We are all tired and more than a bit disappointed, but at least we didn’t set fire to the aircraft.  I’m convinced that we will find the prop we need, somehow, somewhere, before races begin.  But first we want to see how she actually flies and if the handling problems are sorted or not.  One small step at a time.

We start test flying to qualify for the races tomorrow.  I have to attend a mass in-brief at 0620 and I’m on the course to start qualifying at 0800.

We are too tired to even notice the changing population of the GSR this evening.


Day 6


The plane goes back together so that the vinyls can be put on.  Despite being told to “stay away” I go out the airfield leaving Miss Kelly to have a lie in and recover from the excesses of last night.


A couple of heavily tattooed locals turn up to apply the vinyls an hour and a half late.  They appear to be complete bozos, losing the scheme within 2 minutes of me handing it to them, but they actually do know what they are doing and do a fine job.  The plane looks great – pictures will follow once we get her outside.

Steve retimes the mags to 30 degrees (they were 3 degrees apart – that should improve power).  Blade puts the plane back together and works on the prop spinner and backplate, to cover both props.

Thom Richard arrives in Precious Metal, oil covering the lower half of the  fuselage – Griffon engines are notorious for spreading oil far and wide.  Its no big deal, its from a breather tube, and he tells me that the engine is improving all the time.  We climb up on the wing and he shows me the changes since last year – they are subtle but immense.  His team of volunteers have developed a new combined electronic fuel management and electronic ignition system for the mighty 36 litre Griffon V12.  Nobody has done this before.  The flight over from Florida he described as “boring”, a big improvement from the “will he make it in time?” excitement of previous years.  And the motor is running better with each leg of the trip into Reno.  I ask about telemetry (remote monitoring of the engine and all systems from the pits while he is racing).  He explains that he won’t use it because a) he knows his system pretty well having designed it, and b) the guy who provides it also works on Strega’s crew and he doesn’t want to give his secrets away.  He is quietly confident.  I wouldn’t bet against him.  Apart from which it is entirely Thom’s fault that I’m here at all.

Miss Kelly is about to start running a pit with 20 people in it – we have a lot of support coming out to cheer us on – a huge task.  So I take her to the outlet mall for a quick shopping fix as any girl who gives up to weeks of her holiday to run a pit so that her man can go air racing deserves this as a bare minimum!  Without her the entire crew would fall apart as she feeds and waters us all not to mention finding parts and supplies as required.  She is the heart of the crew and we need her motivated and on top form!

We get back to the airfield to see it filling up with aircraft and several people tell us that we have “a problem” with the FAA about both the registration of the aircraft and our mods.  I know about both issues and have them covered, but everyone gets excited about them.  We will deal with both when we register in the morning when Mark arrives.  In the meantime we weigh the aircraft with Roger, who is head of tech, an ancient Englishman with long white hair and beard, who looks like God and is probably about as wise.  He explains the subtleties of weight and balance and control harmony is ways that even I, a mere pilot, can just about understand.  Basically we are a bit too tail heavy and this will slow down our starts and create more drag than it should as we make turns round the race course.  He advises putting 8lbs of lead in the nose.  Blade is very deferential and I follow his lead (we are being briefed by God after all).  I wonder how I lose another 8lbs by next Wednesday…

Day 5

I didn’t sleep well.  Pissed off at myself and trying to understand what happened clearly.  The big prop provides less breaking effect – I hadn’t thought about that before – and I wonder if I tried to use my toes to brake when the braking was really needed – and not my heels where the brakes are on Miss USA, unlike almost all planes.  I don’t think so – but we will never know.  The point is these are learning experiences and I don’t need to make this mistake ever again.  Anyway, its all in the past now.

 Day 4 was worse than we thought.  Not only did Miss Kelly get a speeding ticket but she also had 5 candidates doing final interviews and this morning she learned that not one of them was made an offer.  Pretty crushing news.

 I leave her to work and try to recover the situation and head for Stead field.  One of the furry people is striding out, alone with his backpack and long beard.  Perhaps a poet or the only authentic hobo at Burning man.  I collect clamps for the cable that holds the engine in the aircraft at the hardware store, where they know me well already.  The cable is intended to keep the engine attached to the plane if it decides to break loose from the engine mount.  That way you should be able to glide down with engine still in roughly the right place…  We saw this happen in 2011 when a racer shed his prop and vibration ripped the engine off its engine mount.  The pilot did a good job of gliding the wreckage down to the runway.  Another fun problem to contemplate.

The boys are having an “arts and crafts day” making things that need to be made and mending stuff that I have broken.  Blade is busy most of the day making a new spinner for our 65 prop.  It’s a work of art.  He also takes the tail apart and in putting it back together realises that one of the spacers is in backwards and this is twisting the tail plane.  There is a good chance that he has found the reason that she was pulling up and left so much.  Only flight testing will tell.

Blade apologises that as he is going to take the evening off as he made a commitment to watch the Green Bay Packers play the Seattle SeaHawks at 1800 this evening before yesterdays prang.  He has worked to midnight every day since we got here – I apologise for breaking “his” plane and ask if I can join him.

We decide to change the spacers on the engine mount to help with clearance of the engine frame and I’m allowed (as a mere pilot to be allowed to touch the aircraft is a rare privilege, and only under close supervision) to get the winch and lift the engine, remove the nuts and bolts and change the spacers.  This involves an awful lot of spanners (they call them wrenches over here) and doing things in tiny spaces at impossible angles.  But it is satisfying, working with your hands and I’m always impressed by the quiet resourcefulness of the engineers, and their easy banter against a background of classic rock playing all day.

My other tasks are to build the pit ready for racing and to source a new prop.

In a race pit everything has a place, engineering to port with tools and consumables, guest and drinks to starboard.  The pilot’s table; with all the chargers, helmet, parachutes and cameras at the back.  The hangar is completely empty when I start but Jay Jones, a race pilot with 100 races in his log book, arrives with Quadranickel and Madness, after a 1,000 mile drive in 18 hours, and by the end of the day there are 4 formula 1 planes in various states of being rigged along one wall.  They will all arrive by Saturday.

I explain my need for a new prop to Jay.  He’s an old friend, who stayed with us in London during the para Olympics when his daughter, Allison, who has one leg, won 2 Gold medals.  Jay has exactly the prop I need and he doesn’t need it as his motor cannot turn it on Quadranickel.  A deal is done with a handshake and he brings our new prop over.  I was quietly confident that we would find a new race prop in time, but this was much quicker than I had expected.  Result!  Blade quietly adapts the spinner to take both props.  Genius.

We still have work to be done but its all coming together as it should and tomorrow the vinyls for the new scheme are going to be applied (vinyl is cheaper, quicker to apply and lighter than paint).   Blade insists that we don’t go to the airfield until late afternoon for engine runs and then we will take her to the race hangar where our pit is ready for her.

When I arrived on the field this morning there was a lone T-6 Texan (Harvard in UK) out on the ramp.  By the end of the day there are eight and a single Seafury, with trailers and support vehicles marking out each pit..  The carnival is getting under way.

Miss Kelly joins us and we all head to the sports bar to drink beer, watch football and play pool shortly after 1800.  Kelly finds a new recruit for the blondetourage and, despite losing more at pool than we win, Blade and I conclude the evening with a fine team win of Brits against Americans.

The GSR is almost empty of furry people, the last stragglers, in their fur and top hats are camped against the bar.  The parking lot seems deserted without acres of sand encrusted vehicles festooned with furry bikes.  I will miss the Volkswagen bus that had scales and looked (a bit) like a fish and Santa’s neon sleigh.  I assumed that these were attempts at irony, but I liked them anyway.  Tomorrow a new tribe will start to arrive here; the race teams, supporters and media, organisers, volunteers and hangers on.  Like America the GSR caters for many different tribes.  And this is our tribe

Day 4


It’s not a rest day but with the condition inspection signed, we plan to fly to Beckworth, 24 miles North West over the mountains for lunch, so we decide to have a late start.  Mrs Bob has emailed back to confirm lunch and a delightful Englishman we bumped into at the Stead fuel farm, who has lived here for 34 years, has invited us out for dinner.  We have been trying to find a house to rent for race week, instead of staying with the freak show at GSR, and this may help.   So we are now on a social whirl too.


We have the race prop to try out and the big question is “Can the engine turn this  “big” prop (which bites 68” of sky with each revolution, unlike the 65” prop we have been using) and reach peak power?  The O-200 engine power peaks at 4,150 rpm (red line is 2,700 – but hey this is racing) and the torque curve is pretty flat, but we have to be able to spin her at those revs.   It’s a bit like driving up hill in a higher gear.  If we have enough power to spin her we will go faster – if not – the engine will be labouring and we will go slower.


Cleaner aerodynamics help a lot as they amount to “free power”.  Which is what Mark has spent the last 9 months working on.  But she is still out of trim – I’m having to hold the stick forwards and apply a little right turn to keep her flying straight.  If I let go of the stick, or even relax the control forces, she would pull up hard and barrel roll left immediately.  Not dangerous but any control input makes us slower – we need to get rid of that for racing.  It always reminds me of reading Swallows and Amazons when John or Roger was teaching his little sister Susan or Titty (was she really called Titty?) how to steer the dinghy and explaining that any movement of the tiller creates drag and slows the little boat down.   The race plane needs to be flown with minimal control deflection for the same reason and she must be perfectly in trim for least drag at race speeds – so we have real work to do to tune her.


I greet Snoopy, who is 94, still flies and who thinks he owns the hangar, with a loud (he’s pretty deaf) “Morning Sir!  How are you today?”  “No idea” he replies  “How about you?” which leaves me smiling.  There is country music playing in the hangar, the sun is shining and there is no wind.  We are ahead of schedule its all going too well. I think, “This is Reno, it cannot last”.


There is a problem with the prop bolts, so the right ones are borrowed from another team who aren’t racing this year but are having babies instead.  Formula 1 is one big inclusive happy family.  And I’m strapped in and blasting off for Beckworth in short order.  The take off roll is longer as she accelerates slower with the bigger prop (does your car accelerate quickly from a standing start in top gear?).  But once I stop climbing and do a lap above the airfield she accelerates well.  This motor can swing the big prop at above 4,000 rpm and we haven’t changed to race oil or set her up for racing yet!  So I set 280 degrees and climb over the mountains at full power.


Beckworth is a small unlicensed (= no radio) airfield and I arrive after only 12 minutes at about 240 mph.  I do a wide lazy circuit to check wind and make an approach.  I’m a bit too fast, so I go around.  Set up a second approach and cross threshold at 110mph, 10 mph faster than ideal, but should be fine.  The super firm tyres kick me back into the sky a couple of times before I can get her securely on the runways and start slowing.  Tail up and braking and I realise that I need to brake harder, only the brakes are fading.  OK we are going to run off the end, no big deal at 10 mph or so, brakes off, keep the stick back and pull the mixture and with any luck she won’t turn over or tip on her valuable race prop.  We trundle slowly though the sage grass and I think I have managed a miraculous escape when one of the tyres goes in a hole and ever so slowly she rocks up on her nose, pings the still rotating prop and then falls back on her tail.  There is only one word that does justice in these semi-tragic circumstances.


I feel like a complete muppet and have let the entire team down.  Going round would have been easy but I simply misjudged how long it would take to slow her down.  The brakes were pretty useless but, no excuses, my mistake, simple pilot error.  Mister and Mrs Bob are on hand to rescue me yet again, and I apologise for failing to deliver on our invitation to lunch.  Call the guys and tell them not to drive over for lunch but to bring the trailer, I have broken their plane.


The keys are with the Church van back at the GSR so Kelly goes to get them and then sets off to come to me as the guys are already enroute.  Despite having been to Bekworth more times than we want to remember in our first year of racing, both cars miss the turn off and continue for miles – Miss Kelly getting a speeding ticket too compounding how pissed off she is now!  By the time they arrive Mister Bob and I have removed some of the fairings and canopy and she is dismantled and in the trailer in no time.  “Nothing we can’t fix” is Blade’s assessment of the damage.  “She will be flying again in 48 hours”.


Back at Stead there is not much that Kelly and I can do to help except set up the race pit and get food and fluids.  So we finish our day with a case of beer and pizzas in the hangar stripping her down and making a long snagging list.   The guys are amazing, quietly competent and endlessly hardworking.  Blade is right – they can fix anything.


Bugger.  Muppet.


Back at the hotel the furry people (Kelly’s new term) are calmer, cleaner and more civilised.  They are clearly having a collective coming down.  There were 66,000 of them this year at Burning man and the hotel corridors reek of weed.  In the lift we are asked by a smiling, heavily tattooed dude, with earrings you could lift the plane with, “Did you guys Burn?”  “No.” I reply, “We are here for the air races”.


Or at least we will be.  Once we get the plane fixed and find a new prop.  And educate the bloody pilot.



Day 3

The GSR has been overrun by refugees from Burning man.  You can tell them apart immediately from the normal inhabitants here.  Not by their boho-gypsy-homeless chic attire, desert boots and rucksacks, or by their stoned-shuffling gait – similar to the “Walmart waddle” but caused by ingestion of entirely different chemicals –but from the thin layer of white desert sand that covers them from head to toe and trails behind them.  They have come here for one reason.  After a week of camping in the desert, being cool and partying furiously, they need a shower.   The parking lot is full of their vehicles; classic Airstream trailers (which might have been polished aluminium once), giant RVs and Trucks filled with camping gear and bicycles.  This year the theme appears to be the neon coloured furry bikes.  Everything is covered in white desert sand.  We avoid them although they do make good people watching – camouflage shorts, a purple blanket worn over the head and a water bottle is an “in” look.

They were up when we went to bed last night and the same characters are still going when we leave at 0600 this morning.  The sticker on the car parked next to us says, “Well behaved women rarely make history”.  It’s clearly time to go flying.

Blade has the wheel pants on and the tail incidence is 2 washers lower.  I have a Blue Peter morning, doing un-manly things with double sided tape and soft foam.  I must have the most gay F16 fighter pilot’s helmet ever by the time I have finished !  I strap in and she starts on the second pull.  Blast off and leave the throttle alone – at full smash – for the entire flight.  She is running cold and sounds even better.  Good landing after another half an hour of break-in and some gentle aerobatics.

We email Mark with the stats, strip her for cool down, check oil, refuel and go again.  Only this time I have improved the seating position and made it marginally less uncomfortable with yet more foam.  And I can still see over the nose – just.  There is no cushioned armchair seat in this plane.  I sit on a carbon plate just off the floor with my legs straight ahead.  My lower back is against the metal frame tubes, while my shoulders are “cushioned” by the parachute.  Its small in here, and everything seems designed to be sharp and to remove skin.  And that’s before it gets hot, noisy and starts bouncing around…

The wiggle wiggle tail wheel lasted for three flights – it’s now a heap of molten plastic goo.  But it probably wasn’t intended to be fitted to the tail of a race plane – so we change it and figure that at US$3.33 per flight it is an affordable consumable.  And the quarter inch of gay foam on my helmet didn’t help and is removed.

The Reno carnival is starting to get going with more aeroplanes arriving, non-competitors planes being towed to the far side of the airfield and the helicopter camera ship hovering overhead.  These last couple of days testing on a quiet airfield have been great, but that time is quickly coming to an end.  We make plans to fly to Calif tomorrow and catch up with Mister Bob, a quiet birdman, who rescued us in 2011.  Only half an hour of flying time to “fly off” the mods and get our “condition inspection” signed.

Third flight is off 26 as the Westerly afternoon breeze has picked up so we tow down to the far end of the runway.  I fly in formation with Kevin in Miss U, doing lazy figure of 8’s over the airfield.  At least that’s what it is supposed to be.  We are working our butts off to stay in formation in mid afternoon thermals and turbulence. I fly off the final half an hour, survive a properly shocking landing (Blade has pumped the tyres up to 90 psi, so we go flying again no matter how gently the initial landing) and the condition inspection is signed off.  Blade celebrates by changing the cruise prop to the race prop.

Back at the GSR the Burning Man invasion shows no signs of ending – there are even more of them and they even have Burning Man specials on the cocktails menu.

Good result today, three flights and signed off.


Day 2

JBT sends me a sensible email warning about fast taxi tests.  No problems, I know what I’m going to do.  Taxi up to close to launch speed to check for stability, brakes and if anything falls off or vibrates horribly, then do a careful flight well within the known flight envelope.  Bring her back in to check nothing has gone wrong inside the cowling and if all that’s fine, go flying to explore the envelope further.

The high Sierras, 5,000’ above sea level, radiate away any heat they get from the sun during the day into clear skies each night.  So mornings are still, bright and cold.  Perfect for flying.

Blade has fitted an arm to stabilise the throttle control (it wasn’t mounted securely enough) and changed the plate that supports the prop.  Bryant turns up and spends the morning helping Blade and I try to do something useful.  There are plenty of discussions about which prop is the best to break in the engine.  I’m going to go with what we have, and that I know, and stay within gliding range at all times.

Am I nervous?  Test flying an experimental race plane after very significant modifications have been made, the engine has been rebuilt and I haven’t flown her more than once in a year.  Terrified?  No, not really.  But it would be fair to say that I’m aware of all the things that can go wrong and that I’m fully alert.

 Blade refuels her and I climb in.  Steve Tumlin, who is doing the “Condition Inspection” wants to tighten the rear spar bolts and this is done before I can fully strap in, adding to the tension.  We do the checks and prepare to start her.  First swing and she’s alive, gnarling and snapping, an angry little motor that just wants to be set free.  I change the RPM setting so it reads correctly, helmet up and taxi out checking brakes (heel brakes just to make everything more interesting – most planes have brakes on the toes) and steering with the fixed roller blade on the tail.  The vibration is awful, every bump in the pan feeds right through my backside and if my helmet touches the canopy the vibration makes vision a bit weird.  So I hunch down like a little old lady and clench my buttocks.  Taxi tests complete and give the thumbs up to the crew, then long taxi to run up area for runway 08.

I can hear and see a Cessna doing touch and goes but he cannot hear me.  The radio needs full squelch to stop it hissing at me incessantly.  I love unlicensed airfields with no need to talk to anyone, but comms are something we need to fix.  The Cessna does his landing, I do the final control checks, call ready, line up and open her up.  Power comes in smoothly, I hesitate for a second to make sure it’s all there and then push the throttle almost all the way to the firewall.  Smooth and easy, tail up, stable on her narrow gear and we are airborne.  Immediately I need a steady push force to stop her climbing too fast. Hold at 130mph and climb at that speed.  OK so we need to re-trim the incidence of the tail plane.  Not a big deal but it will make my life more comfortable – no, cancel that, less uncomfortable.  We climb to 1,500’ above the airfield and make a big circuit 2 miles to the North, using runway 14/32 as my reference and possible emergency destination.  20 minutes of gentle orbits with increasing bank and roll reversals, getting the power slowly wound up and watching the instruments like a hawk.

Two of the EGTs are not working and the left side CHTs are a bit hotter but nothing serious.  Oil pressure (by far the most important) is fine and oil temp only goes into the yellow after 10 minutes and touches red after a 5 minute run at higher power.  But this is quickly sorted with richening the mixture and reducing power.  She can go to 450 Oil temp without any problem and she is only reading 235!  Excellent news.  I’m being thrown about a lot as despite being strapped in tight it’s not tight enough with the hot dry desert kicking off a steady stream of small, punchy thermals.  And so time to rejoin the circuit and land her.  The pattern sort of falls to hand easily and I wheel her on, as good as it gets, fast side, slow side, use plenty of runway with the tail up as long as possible.  The roller blade has tuned to mush and so Kelly gets sent off to Walmart to buy some more and she returns with a “Wiggle wiggle” a child’s toy with 4 perfect roller blade wheels (and a fridge and fan to cool the engineers and engine between flights too…).

We are all pleased with the first test flight, all goals achieved.  Nothing serious broken and good data captured.  Cowls come off to check for leaks and damage.  Nothing.  The Gopro tells us the speeds and power settings – she is fast, even without low drag wheel pants, using break in oil, no gap seals and not using the race prop.  We call Mark and Julian with the news.  All of Mark’s mods are working – I can even see how much fuel I have, a luxury never enjoyed before!  Break for a sandwich and fluids and do it again.

Kevin Anderson who flies a similar fast Cassutt, Race No 3, Miss U, asks if we can fly formation together.  I mention to Blade how strange it is that this morning we were happy just to fly and get her back in one piece, and now we are ready to do formation take offs…  We start up and taxi to A3, every expansion joint on the pan gives a thump enough to shake my molars loose.  Miss U stages at A3 and we hold there while they try to start her, but we are getting hot so I decide to get airborne first.

The plan is to orbit above the airfield at a range of power settings to continue breaking in the engine, Miss U joins on the wingtip and we fly together.  Rare Bear launches and enters the circuit, so we move further North.  The last thing I want is a mid air with a heavily modified Bear Cat turning well over 400mph.  30 minutes of blasting around and I’m ready to go and land, but the Bear does the same and he has better comms, so I stay out of his way and then drop into the circuit, wheel her on and finally roll across the pan to the crew with the engine off.  Good result.  Nothing broken, no leaks and she’s fast. The new tail wheel survived one flight but my bum is seriously numb.  And, in truth, I’m bloody tired.

I return the aircraft to Blade who has plans for the evening; to change the tail plane incidence and switch the prop spinner and baseplate.  The pit is where the real heros reside!  My job is done after we email Mark with the results of the day and download the engine monitoring data.  Blade is already exhausted as he sets in for the next few hours.   But first he grabs me to show me something unique.  In a row of small hangars we climb under a half opened hangar door to meet Joe, and there she is – I know her immediately – the world’s only MB4.

Classic Reno.  Surprises (we achieved our goals for the day with almost no drama – a fictional outcome!) and then more surprises.

We meet at 0600 to fly at 0800 tomorrow.


Day 1. (Aug 31st)

We meet at our usual spot, Starbucks at GSR at 0600. By 0700 I’m  inside the cockpit with new canopy for the first time.  I barely fit with parachute and helmet on!  I’m solid against the canopy roof.  But to my surprise I can turn my head…

SPH in Miss USA for the first time 2014












we all spend the day working on the plane.  Manly things with tools and trips to the local hardware store.  Miss Kelly starts stocking her pit and feeds us.  I take Mark to the airport, he rejoins us on Friday, and then spend a lot of time in the cockpit, fixing breathing tubes, radios and cameras.  There is no clearance with my helmet on – I’m wedged against the canopy – but, to my surprise, I can turn my head!  Blade continues working through the inspection – there are always things to fix – and by mid afternoon its time for an engine run.  First time since the engine was put back in the plane and with magnetos (“mags”) after we ditched the electronic ignition.  Blade fills her with special “break in” oil and fuel and I climb in.

There is no starter motor – too much extra weight – so we start her by hand swinging the prop; very carefully.  We go through the familiar ritual.  She doesn’t start on the first two pulls with “mags on” and as we are doing another priming stroke, Blade swinging the prop to suck fuel into the cylinders, she fires up catching us all by surprise!  Luckily he was careful and didn’t get “bitten” by the prop.  The mags are on “Off” – I haven’t screwed up – so I test them both quickly then switch them both to “On” and the engine dies.  We are all pretty shaken.  Blade could easily have lost a hand or a leg.  We take a couple of minutes to confirm what happened, take a deep breath and start again.  She cranks on the second pull and I run her up.  She sounds amazing, with a very powerful deep growl.  There are couple of minor issues to fix with the EFIS but otherwise everything is good, no leaks and nothing obviously broken.  Blade continues with the condition inspection and tomorrow its fast taxi test, low hops and if all is well maybe we will start test flying.  We survived day 1.  But only just.


Day 0 (Aug 30st)

We meet Kevin, aka Blade, at LHR T2 for the 10+ hour flight to SF and then drive 5 hours to Reno, straight to the airfield to see Mark and the plane.  Mark has arrived from Vancouver, where he spent the last 9 months improving the aerodynamics, a Herculean task, put the plane together and started the “condition inspection”.  She seems smaller than I remember, now in all white, and impossibly sleek.

To the hotel, the Grand Sierra Resort (its not Grand, a concrete monolith in the desert filled with slot machines and heavily inked, shockingly large, people) for a couple of beers, get briefed by Mark on final assembly, on running-in the engine and on test flying.  Then bed at 2230, 0630 UK time, knackered.

Mark aka “Terke” hands over rigging and assembly instructions to Blade while I try to be useful – but am best left sitting in the cockpit getting reacquainted with everything (there are 3 switches, a stick, pedals – with heel brakes… and an EFIS – so even a dumb pilot should be OK and not getting in the way or breaking anything.

The condition inspection was started with Steve Tumlin and will be completed tomorrow morning and then its time to fire her up and start taxi tests.