The Valley of Speed
Welcome to the Valley of Speed. The Reno Air races, officially called the STIHL National Championship Races were back in action at the Reno-Stead Field after a two-year hiatus. This week of September (15-19th), the Reno racers battle hot desert winds in a bid to humiliate competitors, even as smokey skies initially threatened to cause potential cancellation.
The former military airport has served the races since the mid-sixties. The annual race has been an American Icon since 1964. The 2020 event last year was canceled like so many other events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After two years of waiting, competitors and fans were excited to be back in the desert once again to feel the heart reverberating thunder of warbirds racing for victory.
The west coast has endured a difficult season of wilderness fires and smoke filled the Tahoe-Reno valleys. By race week the haze was sufficiently light enough and no longer endangering the schedule. Strong winds helped to clear the air but brought with it the added challenge of low level turbulence and even exceeding official wind limitations for some Heats.
Pilots and aircraft competed in one of six traditional classes including Sport, Biplane, Formula One, T-6, Jets, and Unlimited. A seventh class was introduced in 2019: The STOL Drag Race in which high wing aircraft with big wheels and springy gear meant for the backcountry compete on a 2000 ft dirt strip in a precision landing contest. The STOL Drag, now considered the Seventh Class, was back for a second season of challenging touchdowns.
Do not let the thrill of the race produce a false impression of recklessness. You are not in the grandstands in Nevada to watch another episode of Jackass the Movie characters pushing each other faster and faster in their shopping cart contraptions. Try to forget every ridiculous rule breaking Hollywood aviator you’ve ever seen portrayed in film by Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington. You are witnessing professional pilots, engineers, top-notch mechanics, doctors, farmers, accountants…. all professional class aviators: coaxing the very best performance they can out of their machines with the support of diligent crewmembers. They have studied their craft and trained for years, refining their techniques to produce a demonstration of the engineering limits for reciprocating engines, and propellor aerodynamics. The risks are monitored carefully, and strict rules are applied. Exceeding margins is grounds for Disqualification and occasionally entire races are scrubbed when weather or other conditions are not cooperative.
Safety is always the rule as one competitor found out. He was scratched from a Heat due to a faulty radio that turned out to be a weak soldering point in the headset.
Each class has wind limitations. Strong winds scrubbed several Heats, including in the Sport and Biplane Classes.
Each Class also has restrictions on aircraft specifications, and course length is tailored to the performance capabilities of the class. The aircraft fly low and fast, following a course marked by pylons, also nicknamed “The Sticks”. The Sticks are made from telephone poles that are 50 feet tall, marking the absolute lowest that the racers are permitted to fly. This is a height that normal human beings consider too low to be flying for any purpose other than takeoff and landing. At this height, full attention must be given to the external environment without neglecting the state of the engine performance nor the parameters of the course.
The pylon tops are mounted by a metal drum or "can". Judges serve as monitors at the pylons during each race. They verify that aircraft stay outside the pylons and at the proper height. If aircraft cut inside the course, the judges will see it and call it out. They stand at the base of the pylon pole and peering up through the can mounted at the top, they monitor the contestants. If they observe any part of an aircraft visually through the interior of the hollow can space, they declare a pylon cut. All judges at each individual stick must unanimously agree that a pylon cut occurred for the pilot and aircraft to receive a time penalty.
For example, this year in the Sport Class, Heat 3A, a pylon cut was called on Skyler Piper, flying "Miss Rudy S" (RV-8). He was leading the race until a time penalty was imposed of 16 seconds on his race time, losing his winning position. The next day, Miss Rudy S made a comeback in the Medallion Event to finish with a solid first place against competitor Chris McMillion flying "Navy Eight" (Super RV-8). The two RV-8 aircraft flew the 8-lap course and reached speeds of 233.921 and 233.837 (a course time of 10 minutes and 34 seconds), both aircraft passed the home pylon within tenths of a second of each other, showing just how close the competition is.
By the Fifth and final day of the races, the smoke had cleared, and the winds had mellowed, making for a strong final competition in all classes.
For decades, the North American T-6 Texan was a highly utilized training aircraft in not only the United States Air Force, but also the United States Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and others in the British Commonwealth. Referred to generally as the T-6, the Navy version is called the SNJ, and outside the U.S. it is referred to as “The Harvard”. It had enough speed and versatility that it could be used for initial training in airmanship, air-to-air combat, ground strafing techniques. It gained the reputation of being particularly difficult to handle and was introduced to recruits as “if you can handle this, you can fly just about anything”.
Fred Telling, Chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association and President of the T-6 Class said, “We may not be the fastest, we may not be the baddest, but we are the noisiest.”
He is referring the speed of the propeller that can reach supersonic speeds, driven by 600 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Radial engines.
“We’re a rare bread of nutcases, flying airplanes that everybody else likes to graduate from and not go back to but we keep at it. And we love it.”
Fred start racing in 2001 and has been the class president for 11 years now.
The T-6 Class was not without challenges this year on multiple fronts. Excessive high desert winds postponed some events when the designated wind limit of 30 knots was exceeded.
T-6 competitor Lee Oman (AT6-D #69 “Eros”) and his wife Mariam lost their pickup truck to thieves on an overnight during race week. They awoke one morning to find their vehicle gone, including a load of equipment and tools. The T-6 Association pulled together a donation package of at least $10000 to assist them in the loss. It’s remarkable to realize that this means his own competitors pitched in and donated funds to help him and his wife out during the most competitive week of the last two years.
When the winds had finally settled down and it was time for the Classic Heat, Lee was still in formation with a lineup of five competitors following the pace plane. Following the 4.83 mile course marked by 8 pylons for 8 laps, he came in Fourth with a 193.66 speed average.
T-6 GOLD FINALISTS
The Formula One class is held to specific standardizations but still provides enough leeway for experimentation in design. It is described as the most affordable entry point into any of the racing classes. Aircraft requirements include the following:
O-200 Continental Engine (same size as the Cessna 150), Fixed pitch propellor (wood or composite), Minimum weight of 500 pounds, non-retractable landing gear with 2x5.00-5 tires, and a minimum wing area of 66 sq ft.
“Think about a minimum weight of 500 pounds, that’s less than half the weight of a Harley Davidson. These are airplanes that you wear, [rather than that you board].” (Rob Lowe, STIHL Reno Race Announcer)
A popular model is the Cassutt aircraft. Originally designed in 1951 by Captain Tom Cassutt, a TWA pilot. The fuselage and empennage are steel tube frame with fabric cover and the wings are plywood on solid spruce wood spars. The vast majority of participants operate the Cassutt III-M model; however the SnoShoo SR-1 boasts the majority of wins and this year was no exception.
Phillip Goforth serves as the Formula One Class President and has been racing for eleven years in Reno. He grew up in Alaska, hounding his parents about his love of aviation. When he came to Reno for the first time, it was to participate in the race itself. He had this to say about the nature of the racers:
“I think my favorite thing about the Reno Air Races is when we are in the hanger, we are all doing our best to get the other’s plane flying. Like if one’s broke, we all pitch in and give them parts. It’s real family oriented. It’s probably my favorite part.”
The Course length for the Formula One is just a little over 3 miles defined by seven pylons, with 8 laps flown that provides about 25 miles of flying distance. Minimum altitude flown is 50 ft and maximum altitude is 250 ft. Aircraft speeds can be as much as 250 mph.
One notable event was a Mayday declaration in the Silver Event as Carl Robinson flying his Cassutt named “Heat Stroke” lost the canopy on Lap Six. The bright yellow aircraft could be seen flashing an extra reflection of light as the handle side gave way and the canopy flipped open, bouncing on the wingroot until hinges sheared away and the canopy trailed into the open air. Fighting a direct relative wind in the face, Carl maintained accurate control and landed safely just as the other competitors crossed the finish line. The canopy was recovered by ground crews and Heat Stroke was tagged with a DNF (Did Not Finish) for the event. We wish crew and bird the best and hope to see them again in 2022.
FORMULA ONE GOLD FINALISTS
The Sport Class is defined by high performance kit-built airplanes that can reach speeds of 350 mph. The class has one of the more relaxed rule lists for qualifying aircraft with the intention of encouraging innovation and design. Powerplants may include traditional Lycoming or Continental, or Radial Engines or V-8’s. Supercharging and Turbocharging are often employed with fuel use incorporating anti-detonation injection or even nitrous-oxide if desired. Aircraft may be kit-built or amateur built and must be FAA certified and completed a Phase 1 flight test. A minimum capability of 200 mph lap speed is required to qualify.
“My favorite location to fly? I would say right out there on the courses of Reno Air Races. It’s the only place in the world where you can see airplanes flying this low, this fast, this close to each other. There’s no other event, anywhere in the world that’s quite like it. It’s a spectacle that’s it’s own unique event, you can’t see anywhere else. This is where it’s at.” (Bob Mills, President of Sport Class)
The winds were gusty enough to cancel one Sport class event. Sport Bronze Champion Dave Morss described the windy week this way: “It was little lonely and a little bit bumpy, actually it was a lot bumpy. But it was a good race. My crew was telling me the interval, so I was able to pull back and make it a little better ride. Cause it was rough out there.” When asked if he was worried about another event cancellation Sport Bronze Champion Dave Morss responded “Well, that happened yesterday and I think that yesterday we worried that they wouldn’t call it off. We have pretty good rules about what’s safe to do and we stay within the rules.”
SPORT GOLD FINALISTS
The Biplane class consists of small, high performance aerobatic aircraft such as the Pitts Special, the Mong, and the Smith Miniplane. The greatest challenge of operating the biplane is the limited visibility due to the wings above and below. Pilots of other classes admit that it is a challenge to have the reduced field of view, and could be claimed to be one of the more challenging even if it is not the fastest. Course length is 3.18 miles.
These aircraft have fixed pitch props requiring the pilot and crew to decide on a race strategy that will work best using a given angle to set the propellor pitch during maintenance. A pitch setting may be selected for better climb performance in the initial climb to gain an early lead, or a pitch setting may be selected for more efficient cruise, giving the racer a slow start but allowing for a gain during the laps.
The Biplane Gold Race was canceled due to winds. This resulted in Jeff Lo winning the First place position and Alan Hoover (Southwest Airlines) placing Second. Due to the light aircraft, the tailwinds and overall winds, with an emphasis Safety First made the Silver Race getting recorded in the books as the final race.
Biplane Silver Finalists Results. Gold Canceled due to wind cancellation and schedule conflicts, scratching Friday Heat.
The STOL Drag Race is a Short Take Off and Landing demonstration that displays just how challenging this phase of flight can really be. Every aviator, whether student pilot or international heavy captain near retirement keeps an internal grading scale for every single landing. And they know that all passengers in the back are grading the landing too. The STOL provides an excellent opportunity for competitors to show off their skills. The event was introduced in 2019 as a Demonstration only, however due to the success of the event and the enthusiasm of aviators and fans, the race committee marked it as a new class beginning in the 2020 season. That season was cancelled due to pandemic restrictions making this year the inauguration of the STOL Class.
Participating aircraft include aircraft like the Husky, high wing aircraft with big wheels and springy gear meant for the backcountry. They compete on a 2000 ft dirt strip with markers locating precise landing points. Pilots must start the race from a dead stop, just like a drag race, get airborne and cross the landing line, touch down and come to a full stop with the tail down. Only then can they turn in position, take off again and retrace the course back to the start/finish line and cross it and come to a full stop. It’s all about speed and the first aircraft to complete the course and come to a full stop is the winner.
STOL Drag Gold Class
First Place Toby Ashley
Second Place Steve Henry
Third Place Butch Kingston
The Jet Class was first introduced in 2002. It features the Czech built Aerovodochody L-39 Albatros, as well as the Povost, Iskra, L-29 and DeHavilland Vampires. Aircraft speeds can reach over 500 mph. The L-29 was developed in 1954 under the Warsaw Pack, its descendant the L-39 was developed latter in the sixties. Made in Czechoslovakia but often purchased by smaller countries and available on the open market, the aircraft has proven to be an exciting edition in Reno and can truly make the boast of being the fastest motor race of all time.
Micheal Steiger serves as Jet Class President and has been flying since he was eleven years old. He was taught by his parents, both instructors. Spent years instructing in aerobatics, served in the military flying A-7’s and F-16’s. His airline career qualified him in nearly a complete Boeing line up and he declares that his most memorable moment in the air was the first time he flew the 747.
The course is 8 miles long and they start with a line up alongside the pace airplane. The START is called out by the pace plane pilot with the announcement “Ladies and Gentlemen, you have a race!” The competitors thrust forward going “down the chute”, the first straight away until the guide pylon that marks the first turn. They can pass during this initial run, but they must stay in their own lane. Once the guide pylon is cleared, racers can cut into tight turns and it’s 4 to 5 G turns for the next 6 laps.
Winning pilot Pete Stavrides demonstrated a personal best racing speed of 502 mph. He has a twenty year career in the Navy including multiple tours in Iraq and the South China Sea. In 2010, he was selected as an East Coast Superhornet Demonstration pilot. His first Reno air race was in 2017 flying the T-6 Texan, and he now flys the L-39. He has retired from the military and flies for a major airline on the Airbus 321.
JET GOLD Finalists: 6 Laps, 46.99 miles
The Unlimited Class is the ultimate event in the five-day contest, the mainstay event that started it all in Reno 57 years ago. Few rules for aircraft entry into the class: Must be piston powered and propellor driven, and a minimum weight of 4500 pouns. Warbirds are by far the preferred speed machine for this event. P-51 Mustangs, Hawker Sea Furys, and F-8F Bearcats typically fill the air with the thunder of 1200 Horsepower engines, striving for speeds of 500 mph. For example, P-51 Vodoo set a speed record of 531 mph in 2017 reaching the top speed in 4 separate laps.
The Unlimited Gold Race quickly separated itself into distinct battles with Joel Swager in Dreadnaught (Sea Fury) taking an immediate lead. Brent Hisey in Miss America (P-51) took the high ground in second, hot on Swager’s tail. The two matched speeds for eight laps, Hisey holding back a little reserve, waiting for the overtake until the proper moment, perhaps in anticipation of a diving acceleration at the finish line. It was a challenge to the champion that fans could not have anticipated, giving Dreadnought a real run for the gold that she hasn’t seen in several heats. Miss America took the dive rounding the last pylon before the finish, an exciting finish as the P-51 Mustang shortened the distance between the two contenders. It wasn’t to be. Swager’s Sea Fury maintained a marginal lead for the win. Hisey took a double disappointment as he received word of a Disqualification for exceeding the course height limit of 250 feet. This placed Sherman Smoot, the Unlimited Class President, earning the Second Place award with a respectable speed of 359.96 mph. Always remember, it’s not over until the Judges confirm the win. A tough reminder for Miss America on Gold Sunday.
The Unlimited Gold Race was held in honor of Steve Stavrakakis, an aerobatic demonstration pilot and long time, enthusiastic announcer for the National Championship Races. He was healthy and strong at the start of summer, but overtaken by COVID-19 before he could attend this seasons events. He was greatly missed and his memory was held in high regard during open ceremonies by race officials.
Steve Stavrakakis Unlimited Gold Race
Already looking forward to the 2022 season. Ladies and Gentlemen, you have a race!