Eye of Experience #48:
Air Racing

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Air racing, like many things, used to be much simpler in the good old days the fastest airplane won, period. Today's handicap races are more complex, as AVweb's Howard Fried recently learned first-hand.

Eye Of ExperienceG rowing up as I did in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, throughout the 1930s I was privileged to attend the National Air Races. Because my father was the attorney for the local organizing group, I was doubly blessed with the privilege of getting to sit right down in the pit where I got to meet all the great aviators of the day, including Jimmy Doolittle (my particular hero), Roscoe Turner, Amelia Earhart, and all the rest. Those were thrilling days as the arrivals in the Bendix Trophy Race came in from the West Coast, each year breaking the prior year's record for speed. And speed? You should have seen the Thompson Trophy race around a closed course with all the pylons in plain sight of the grandstand. The turns were so tight the airplanes seemed to be banked vertically, standing on wingtip. Wow! Was that ever exciting. The noise of the big radials was almost overwhelming. The thing about it was, the fastest airplane won. That's all she wrote. In those days progress in aviation was measured by the performance of the airplanes in the National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio. The only thing that comes close today is the Reno Air Races, but somehow it's not the same. There was no such thing as a handicap in the National Air Races at Cleveland. It is all different today, as I found out a few years ago when I participated in the Great Southern Air Race.

Getting Signed Up

Getting race-ready I had no idea how today's handicap races were organized and run until one of my former clients, who did his instrument training at my flight school, asked me to join him for the Bahamas race (The Great Southern Air Race). I jumped at the opportunity, not having a clue what I was getting myself into. Henry owns a Beechcraft V35 Bonanza, equipped with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, and had been following the racing circuit for several years. One of the requirements is that there be a minimum of two people aboard each plane. Henry's normal copilot wasn't available that year for the Great Southern Air Race, so he asked me to fly the race with him.

By the by, that's another facet of aviation I had been totally unaware of. There is a regular schedule of handicap races annually and a cadre of pilots who follow the circuit and fly in them all. Many of the same people entering races throughout the season. Although many of these racing enthusiasts are very serious about the racing part, that doesn't keep them from participating actively in the parties that follow each day's racing and last well into the night. We flew Henry's Bonanza from PTK (Pontiac, Mich.) to VRB (Vero Beach, Fla.), the starting point for the race, on the Sunday. To give you an idea as to how loaded with equipment Henry's airplane was, it has color radar, a KLN 90 GPS (which made overwater navigation easy), a flight director, an Argus 500 Moving Map, a HSI, a three-axis autopilot, DME, Sky Phone, two ADFs, and an HF radio that Henry used when he flew the airplane to Europe and South America. After arriving at VRB, we registered for the race and all the paperwork was checked, both ours and the airplane's. The balance of the day we relaxed at the motel and chatted with other entrants.

Racing Under a Handicap

Monday we all assembled at the airport where race officials inspected the airplanes. Everything was removed from the airplanes to make them as light as possible for the handicap run. The handicap run is flown at full throttle over a measured course on the ground with an observer at each end. On board the otherwise empty airplane is the handicap pilot, the official race entry pilot and full fuel. Since one's time in the race is measured against this handicap run, it behooves the pilot to go as slowly as he/she can during the handicap run. That's why it is accomplished at full throttle with an official observer aboard. I stood on the ground with the pile of stuff we had removed from the airplane and watched as Henry flew to establish the speed by which we would be graded on each leg of the race. What this handicap means is that, in effect, you are competing with yourself. Rather than being determined by which racer is the fastest, the winners are the ones who beat their handicaps by the largest margins. The racers are presented with the challenging opportunity of testing themselves against an empirical standard.

How Low Can You Go? Henry having established our handicap, we reloaded the airplane. The airplane was then impounded and secured to ensure that we could make no advantageous changes in equipment or systems once the handicap was established. Each airplane entered in the race is given a number that is prominently displayed on both sides of the airplane to give the spotters and timers at the start and finish lines as well as turn points, etc. the opportunity to properly credit the racer with the time starting and finishing each leg of each day's run. Once the race gets underway, the airplanes use their race numbers for their radio calls ("Racer two-two. Five miles out," etc. There were over 30 volunteer timers and spotters who worked throughout the weeklong race. Of 41 airplanes entered, 39 flew in that 12th annual running of that particular event. The 39 racers included Cessna 172s, and 182s, Cherokees, Grumman Americans, Mooneys, Bonanzas (our 35 and a couple of 36s), and assorted twins, including a Beechcraft Baron, a Cessna 310, and an Aerostar. No experimental or turbocharged airplanes are permitted. Since it is a handicap race, any airplane can win. Past winners include a Cessna 172, a Piper Dakota, and even a Cessna 152.

Next, we adjourned to the conference room at the headquarters motel for the Coast Guard briefing which was both interesting and informative. I was convinced the over-water flying in a single engine airplane was not only safe, but, if we should splash down in the water, we'd be rescued very quickly. Many of the racers had to rent their survival gear (life vests and life raft) but Henry had his own and a vest for me as well. On the other hand, not only were some of the racers completely equipped, but a few of the really wealthy ones brought professional pilots and paid them well. (Some of these guys are really serious about racing.) Most of the racers paid the expenses of their co-pilots. Henry doesn't cover the expenses of his co-pilots; nor does he share the prize money. I paid my own way, but got my money back by selling an article about the race to Flying magazine. Henry is an experienced and successful racer, having followed the racing circuit for several years and won his share of races. It was a privilege and honor to crew for him. Being paired with Henry afforded me the opportunity to learn a great deal more about handicap racing than I otherwise could have.

Since the president of the organizing body, The Florida Race Pilots Association, was entered in the race that year, John Walker was hired to supervise the entire event and he did a magnificent job of keeping everything running and staying up with some schedule and route changes resulting from weather problems. We all filed ICAO (International) flight plans. The first real party was that evening at the headquarters hotel where the reception was held with hors d'ouvres , etc.

Let the Racing Begin

Overtaking! The actual race got underway on Tuesday. It was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m. and the day's itinerary was to go from Vero Beach to Marco Island, Fla.; North Palm Beach County, Fla.; Walker's Cay, Bahamas; Freeport, Bahamas; and terminate at Bimini, Bahamas for a mandatory overnight stay. However, since the weather over peninsular Florida was hard IFR with thunderstorms, the actual takeoff time was about noon. We flew to Freeport to clear Bahamian customs, then on to Bimini for our evening party and overnight stay. Thus, the first two legs of the race were from Vero Beach to Freeport and from Freeport to Bimini. Cash prizes are awarded for the best time against handicap for each leg, each day, and of course for the entire race. Unlike glider races in which I have also participated and in which the glider pilot, after release from the tow plane, dives through the "start gate," in these handicap air races the airplanes fly a modified pattern and dive over the departure runway to get the fastest possible start. The timer starts the clock at the midpoint of the takeoff runway, and the airplanes are not permitted to turn on course until they pass the departure end of the runway. There is a spotter at the end of the runway to make sure this rule is complied with. The faster airplanes are dispatched first to lessen the chance of the airplanes bumping into one another as they jam up overtaking the leaders. Henry is credited with developing the technique by which all the pilots run this overwater race. Instead of climbing to a decent altitude and diving toward the destination, Henry decided to fly as low over the water as possible to take advantage of ground effect, and today everyone flies the Bahamas race that way. For this, the radar altimeter sure was useful. In the photo we were less than thirty feet above the ocean and the other airplane was below us!

As soon as the racers pass the end of the departure runway, they turn on course for the next fly-,by or turn point along the way. The entire race is flown at full power. Our throttle was wide open the entire time and the tachometer needle was glued to the redline. On that first leg of the race we encountered several light to moderate rain showers, and besides giving us a wash job on the airplane the rain washed off our stuck-on race number as well as those of several other racers. However, being the only V-tail in the bunch, we were easy to identify. Two of the fly-bys (turn points) were lighthouses around which we had to fly. There was a spotter was posted at each point to make sure we didn't cut the corner. Since seconds count, rather than having the GPS set on the airport, we set it about a quarter mile off the end of the arrival runway, so we could turn right in from a modified base leg to a short final. After crossing the finish line at Bimini at top speed, we circled the airport and landed.

The Overnights Are Half the Fun

Racing Garb Wednesday, the second day of actual racing, we flew from Bimini to Marsh Harbor, where we overnighted. We were scheduled to have the next day, Thursday, off to relax, snorkel, and whatever on Marsh Harbor. However, since we were behind schedule it was another race day with two rather long legs, ending again at Marsh Harbor where we again overnighted after the usual reception and party. Throughout, all the accommodations were first-class. The Bahamian Tourist Commission was a sponsor of the race and the Bahamians simply loved us.

Friday was the final day of racing, and our route took us from Marsh Harbor, by the Hopetown Lighthouse, Elbow Cay, and Berry Islands, ending as we flew by the Lucayan Lighthouse at Freeport, where we overnighted. Saturday was an off day at Freeport during which time all the scores were computed. By then I, being the oldest guy there, needed the time to rest and recuperate from the tension of all that flying right above the waves. (One of the Cessna 182s had caught its landing gear on a wave and landed on broken gear and struts. Luckily that was the only damage.). That evening the awards banquet was held in the hotel ballroom at Freeport and the trophies and money was handed out. There were prizes for everything imaginable. I even won a prize for being the oldest entrant and having the most flight experience! The top few were separated by mere seconds. Henry and I finished in the middle group. Had we not had one very bad leg (we were required to cross the finish line twice because we had cut a corner to turn final over the runway) we would have finished much higher. Even so we took several leg prizes, giving Henry a decent share of the $25,000.00 prize money. The second-place prize money award of $3000 went to a father and son, to whom I had given seaplane dual and checkrides for certification a few years previously. I had been totally unaware that these two pilots were racers. Marco and Lucky Pierpbon of Michigan had been flying this race for four years, this time in a Cessna 180.

We started home on Sunday, stopping at Fort Pierce, Fla., to clear U. S. customs. Although I enjoyed the experience, I don't think I'd like to be a regular racer, entering all the races every season. The strain is a bit much for a tired old man like me. Although it is not cheap to race, one need not be wealthy either, and it certainly is an enjoyable experience.


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