The Pilot's Lounge #79: Reno, Baby -- Go Fast, Fly Low, Turn Left

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AVweb's Rick Durden and his mates left the confines of The Pilot's Lounge to breathe the fire (and dust) and feel the thunder of the air races in Reno last month. Even the slowest planes makes drag racers look tame.

The Pilot's Lounge

Old Hack was the instigator. Because of him the Pilot's Lounge departed the virtual airport in mid-September, and headed for the National Air Races at Reno Stead Airport, north of Reno, Nev., for a serious fix of airplanes flying very fast and very low, while making noise that hits a person right in the gut and weakens the knees. For four days those who desire to seriously overdose on speed and power do so, stumbling away from the airport late each afternoon to refortify themselves for the endeavors of hearing Wright 3350s, big Pratts, Merlins and Griffons howl the next day by making offerings at the tables and slot machines of Reno.

It all started just after Oshkosh this summer. Hack innocently asked several of us if we had enjoyed watching and hearing the World War II fighters at AirVenture. Silly question. He then commented on the sound of those big radials and hot-water-12s. (He calls Merlins, Griffons and Allisons by that name because they are V-12s and are liquid-cooled. We humor him, and don't admit we think it's kind of cool, too.) Then he mused, to no one in particular, "Kind of sad, though. At Oshkosh the pilots keep them pulled way back, saving fuel, so you never really get to hear them the way they sounded back in the '40s, when the pilots were bending the throttles over the quadrant, trying to get every bit of power. You just don't get to experience the first quiet whine of a big bore fighter, going as fast as it can go, as it hurtles toward you -- a whine that starts to rapidly build, then the airplane blurs past at 450 or 500 mph, 40 feet in the air. And only after it's past can you hear the sounds grow and separate into the thud of that monstrous prop as it bites the air and the chest-hammering of the exhaust noise and the chuff as the airframe pushes the air out of its way.

"Nope, you just don't hear those sounds of pure horsepower very much any more. But I guess you nosewheel pilot types don't much care. You've got your Jepps to revise and logbooks to fill out to make sure you're current. And none of you could probably handle a day on the ramp in the high desert and then most of the night with the tailwheel types at the casinos. Naw, I shouldn't have even brought up the subject. Besides, you wouldn't care that Rare Bear is going to be back at Reno this year."

Hack knows how to wave the cape in front of the bull.

Let's Go to Reno

This T-28 and its owner sure know how to live. (Click here for larger picture.)

It wasn't long before several of us had made travel plans, hotel reservations and arranged for a rental car. Hack allowed as how he would be willing to go as well, but we had to do it right: arrive Wednesday evening or very early Thursday morning, attend every day of the races, Thursday through Sunday, and don't even think about departing until Monday, as sometimes the races run late on Sunday and, anyway, once we got a serious dose of speed, we were not going to be in any condition to try and depart Sunday evening. We agreed.

Hack was right.

I've been a long-time fan of open-wheel and top-fuel drag racing, events that I thought of as about the fastest motor sports around, and I'd even made fun of NASCAR because the cars were so slow in comparison, but omigawd, those things with four wheels might just as well be parked and covered with tarps. If you want speed, Reno in September is the place to be. And oh lordy, lordy, the sound. Nothing anywhere, anytime except maybe a shuttle launch, compares with a big radial or a Rolls Royce inline engine pulling every inch of manifold pressure possible, and then a few more.

Biplanes stay cool before their race. (Larger picture.)

Good grief, even planes in the biplane class, with nominally 100-hp Continental O-200 engines, are faster than anything NASCAR can put on a track. The Formula racers are faster than that, and by the time the Unlimiteds run, the speeds are well over 400 mph. Last year a highly modified P-51, creatively named after either the cheap wine or the character in M*A*S*H, Dago Red, exceeded the 500 mph mark. At about 40 feet in the air. Right in front of thousands of spectators. I'm told it created some excitement.

Rise and Shine

Be ready to get up early, for racing gets started by 8 in the morning. The drive from Reno, whether by rental car or shuttle, north to Stead, generally takes about a half hour, assuming you don't get stuck in traffic (traffic usually isn't bad going to the race but can be grim afterward; we spent two hours getting from Stead to the hotel one evening). There is free parking, which involves a fair amount of walking, and paid parking, which is closer.

Tickets aren't cheap. There has to be some prize money to help defray the cost of running those hideously expensive machines. There are bleachers on the ramp, along the south end of the various race courses (different classes run on different length courses, with the southern section, in front of the bleachers being common to them all). General admission seating is to the east, with reserved seating to the west. The more expensive reserved bleachers are better, being on "air show center" so the acts and flight demonstrations between the races are targeted at a point directly in front of the reserved seats.

Pits Made For Everyone

P-51 Mustang "Precious Metal" with contra-rotating props spun by a Griffon engine. (Larger picture.)

Once inside, you can pay an additional, only mildly exorbitant, fee to get a pit pass and walk among the race planes and their pit crews. The pits also provide an excellent location from which to watch the races, so a general admission ticket and a pit pass will allow one to see virtually everything because walking around and looking at the airplanes and talking with the pit crews (and pilots) is half the enjoyment. For those who love watching aerobatic pilots perform but can't stand the frenetic and often silly announcing -- "and he's trading altitude for airspeed ladies and gentlemen" -- watching the airshow performances and flight demonstrations that go on nearly continuously between the races from the pits means blessed relief from the announcers and the ability to clearly hear the sound of the machines in action.

The far east side of the spectator area consists of a very large static display of historically significant civilian and military airplanes as well as current military hardware. This year two of the last F-4 Phantoms still in use in the world, by the Germans, were present, and one gave a rousing, noisy, daily demonstration flight, to the delight of those who, maybe for the last time, got to watch proof positive that given enough power, anything will fly. Among the airplanes on display were a Tornado fighter in German markings, Harrier jets from the U.S. Marines and a KC-135 that was opened up and had a steady stream of folks walking through. Signs by the antique and classic airplanes not only identified each one, but asked visitors to vote for it in the popular election for best in show.

Remove cowling, insert money. (Larger picture.)

With all of the displays over what had to be at least a half mile of ramp space creating a need to walk long distances, Thursday and Friday were hot enough to cause the beer vendors to do a land-office business; and a lot of pilots to wonder why Oshkosh, in Wisconsin -- land of beer -- does not have such sales. But this is Reno, and it's aviation for adults, with kids made completely welcome as well.

In the pits the Unlimiteds, T-6/SNJs, jets, sport class, formula and biplanes gleam. For one used to auto racing, seeing the majority of the racers simply sitting there, without someone frantically working on them, is a little strange. However, there are enough airplanes with cowlings off and crews with concerned looks on their faces swinging wrenches, to remind one that racing is not only an all consuming passion for those involved, but incredibly demanding of time and money. (And now class, what makes an airplane fly? "Money." What makes an airplane go fast? "Cubic money." Very good, class.) One thing that makes Reno special is that the vast majority of crewmembers and pilots are more than happy to talk with you. They aren't jaded as one finds in automobile racing; they are out there having just as good a time as the spectators, are proud of their airplanes and want to talk about them. It's a great feeling.

I Could Do That ...

Work is never done in Formula One. (Larger picture.)

The sport biplanes and formula racers, being the smallest and lightest airplanes, race first thing in the morning, when the wind is supposed to be at its calmest. At least that's the theory. They also run the shortest course, so their speeds of over 200 mph are close to everyone, making for enjoyable viewing. This is the part of air racing that is almost affordable, leading one to start thinking such things as "... Lessee, if I got a Mong Sport or a Cassutt and cleaned it up and got a different prop I could ..."

This year the biplane class winner -- at 237 mph -- was within one mph of the winning speed of the T-6/SNJ class. Regardless of top speed, those big old World War II advanced trainers with 600 hp up front rumble and roar their way around the course in what are usually the most closely contested races. It resembles IROC auto racing as everyone starts out with essentially the same airframe and engine combination and, as with all such racing, the fastest is affectionately described as the one who figures out how to best cheat on the engine and airframe and not get caught. It is exciting racing.

New this year was a stop on the international Red Bull racing series tour where aerobatic pilots combine required vertical aerobatic maneuvers with racing between (not over) inflated pylons. It is a timed event, with penalty points for errors, sort of an exciting, creative, aeronautical version of an obstacle course and even includes a spot touch-and-go landing with penalty points for touching down outside a small rectangle. It created a lot of interest, and the gigantic TV screens -- set up to show the action, real-time, from various angles and a hovering helicopter -- made it something that we at Lounge hope will continue. Two previous races had been held on the other side of the Atlantic, with one in Hungary over the Danube River and involved flying under some bridges. Now if they could just bring that to Reno ...

Grumman F7F Tigercat with wings folded. (Larger picture.)

There were excellent military demonstration flights by Air Force F-15s and an F-16 as well as a Navy F/A-18. The military was extremely cooperative in that the Air Force and Navy also tied those flights in with heritage fly-bys: the F-16 leading a formation of two P-51 Mustangs and the F/A-18 joining a flight with an F8F Bearcat and a very rare North American FJ-3 Fury, which looks like a large F-86, but was a completely different airplane built for carrier operations in the 1950s. A student pilot in our group announced that her favorite parts of the demonstrations were the military jets and the heritage fly-bys, and judging from the crowd reaction, she wasn't alone in her preference.

The one cheesy demo was the jet-powered dragster that pretended to race a much slower airplane. It drives around making noise and breathing fire for a bit before it accelerates and catches up to a 180 knot akro airplane. Big deal. Ten-year-old boys seemed to like it, but it would be far more impressive to use a top-fuel dragster -- something actually quicker than the jet powered one -- and tie it in with a fast airplane. There was a well-done clown act in an Interstate Cadet. While those acts have been around for years and usually aren't particularly funny, this one brought back the technique of having parts fall of the airplane, including one aileron. It was very good and worth watching as the pilot displayed a great deal of talent and skill in maneuvering the vintage airplane.

Miss America P-51 Mustang. (Larger picture.)

In the last several years, two new classes have been added: sport and jet. The sport class is for the profusion of slippery homebuilts that have enhanced sport aviation in the last generation or so. It's a pure ball to watch fixed gear and retractable homebuilts scorch their way around the pylons. Ageless, and legendary, Darryl Greenamyer took first at 333 mph in a Lancair, barely in front of a Thunder Mustang. The jet class is, amazingly enough, the quietest of the races. Czechoslovakian L-39 Albatross jets whoosh past at nearly 440 mph making it all look effortless. However, because the class is made up of generally identical airplanes, as with the SNJ/T-6s, the field can get bunched up, which makes for some heart-in-the-mouth moments when they maneuver in the third dimension for openings.

Unlimited Power & Speed

The true reason to go to Reno is for the Unlimiteds, all three classes of them. Bronze is for those who are out to have a great time without going broke and blowing up their engines. Silver is where the racing gets hotter and the price of admission to speed increases. And finally thundering Gold class, where the mighty Pratts, Wrights and Rolls-Royce engines have been tweaked and bored and honed, fired with exotic fuels and have spray bars installed to cascade gallons of water on the exterior of the engines in the desperate drive against heat to keep them from either self-destructing through detonation or just plain melting down, so that each paint-can-sized piston can put out nearly 200 horsepower as it is rammed toward the crankshaft on the power stroke in a massive exercise in supercharged, internal combustion and noise generation. These muscular World War II era fighters, gleaming with modern polyurethane paint, propellers glistening, are what attract the faithful to the pits, many of whom simply stand awestruck within their aura. One of the little secrets of the pit area is that some of the race faithful, upon seeing a cowling off a Mustang and the classic "Rolls Royce" lettering on the rocker covers of a Merlin, have been observed to drool copiously.

Grumman F7F Tigercat. (Larger picture.)

The Unlimited pits are very nearly a dream world for those who have any affection for the heavy iron of air racing. From the trim Yaks that were so successful against the Germans through the graceful Mustangs to the massive Hawker Sea Furies and Grumman Bearcats, the contained power in the 60-year-old airframes continues to awe generations of air-race fans. While the absence of Corsairs was noticeable, the pits did include a couple of surprising airplanes: a Grumman Wildcat, that did not race, and a magnificent Grumman F7F Tigercat that ran with distinction in the Bronze heats on all four days. Its substantial size dwarfed the single-engine fighters and the sound of its twin Pratt & Whitney R-2800s putting out their song of 2,100 horsepower a side had spectators shouting aloud in the wake of each thunderous pass along the main straight. While the Tigercat is so very rare that it is not often seen outside of museums, having one crank up and run hard at Reno made a lot of us deeply thankful that the owner was willing to come out and put on a show.

Old Hack summed up the determination to get the most performance out of the warbirds when he commented that it did his heart good to see Soviet airplanes with U.S. engines, U.S. airplanes with British engines and British airplanes with U.S. engines.

Four Days Aren't Enough

The events of each day, Thursday through Sunday, are largely the same, yet there is so much to see that it takes all four days to watch everything while taking in all the spectacles and displays on the grounds. The races on the first three days do not have much effect on the ultimate result on Sunday other than to determine in which heat each airplane will compete. There is no system of points awarded during the first three days, thus no airplane has an advantage come Sunday but it means there is no encouragement for the pilots to run the airplanes particularly hard on the first three days. It also means that on Sunday each race is a clean slate and the pilot and airplane that wins each race on that day is the winner for the year. Therefore, if you can attend on only one day, do so on Sunday. It is on that day that the engines are run at their limits of heat and power; that spray bars are putting out so much water that the Unlimiteds leave trails of steam behind, causing many first-timers to fear it is smoke and a symptom of some sort of engine problem.

Yak gets the polish. (Larger picture.)

Because engines are so staggeringly expensive, there is much less of the "win or blow up" attitude that was present in years past and resulted in some spectacularly uncontained engine failures. Nevertheless, there are always airplanes that will have some sort of difficulty and be seen to pull up above the racers while the pilot sorts out just what is wrong, the crowd grows silent. The guardian angel, Steve Hinton -- circling above the course in a T-33 (only a jet is fast enough to organize the formation for the flying start or get to an ailing racer rapidly to look it over) -- provides an extra pair of eyes for the worried pilot as Steve talks to him or her and helps the pilot get the stricken machine onto one of Stead's two runways. Fortunately for everyone, there were no accidents this year and all who had to pull up out of races landed safely, even if a few of the landings looked a bit precarious.

This year the weather on Sunday started deteriorating and in an exercise in extremely good judgment, the organizers started the Gold Unlimited race early so as to avoid what might have been cancellation. Stunningly fast Dago Red and historic favorite, Rare Bear, slugged it out through all eight laps, with Red crossing the finish line perhaps a second ahead of the Bear. Round engine fans groaned while the hot-water-12 crowd roared. Moments later it was announced that Dago Red had slightly miscalculated one of the turns at 480 mph and gone inside, rather than around, a pylon, and a penalty of 16 seconds was assessed, making Rare Bear the winner. Despite the fact that over the last 70 years of air racing such results have been the case from time to time, it's tough for all concerned to either win or lose because of an infraction or error at the speeds involved. It just means that the Dago Red and Rare Bear crews, and fans, are going to return to Reno next year even more determined to win. It promises to be a very good year.

Be there.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.

AVweb's coverage of the Reno air races is here.