National Championship Air Races 2013

beau

The period beginning in the early 1930’s and culminating in the late 1940’s saw the most dramatic advancement of the aircraft in history. At the hands of designers and engineers such as Dutch Kindelberger, Lee Atwood, Don Berlin, Howard Hughes, Kelly Johnson and Willie Messerschmitt, aircraft matured from wire and strut braced designs to streamlined performance machines. Early in this transitional period, it was the desire to push the boundaries of performance, altitude, and airspeed, that defined design convention. “What can she do”, or in the words of the unrelenting Howard Hughes, “She’ll go faster”. But the dark clouds of war brought new priorities to aircraft design. Soon, the need for performance was fueled by a need for survival. Orders during the war meant designs featuring the ultimate combination of performance, the most powerful engine mated to the smallest airframe, which the designers were then forced to pollute with as much armament and fuel as could be carried and still meet the military requirements.

Yet, one can’t help but think as those designers, engineers, and draftsmen toiled for hours over drafting boards and slide rules, they must have wondered what their design could do in its purest form………

National Championship Air Races, 2013. The sun greets a cloudy sky, its rays filling the valley where Stead Field resides north of Reno, Nevada. Creeping its way across the airport, it soon begins to cast its orange hue across swaths of polished aluminum, paint, plexiglass, propellers, fuselages, wings and tails. Illuminated in the early morning sun are machines of war, peace, commerce and recreation. At the east end of the flight line is the National Aviation Heritage Invitational parking area. Within these ropes can be found some of the most well-restored and pristine vintage aircraft in the world. One of the stars of the show this year is no doubt the ultra-rare Howard 500. Conceived by Dee Howard as an executive transport based on the Lockheed Harpoon, only 17 of these magnificent aircraft were ever produced. Today, only two are airworthy with another complete aircraft awaiting rescue in Phoenix, AZ. Next to the Howard is a Grumman Albatross, while the Harpoon “062” of the Stockton Field Aviation Museum stands proudly as a reminder of the heroics, triumphs and losses of WWII. Amazingly enough, this Harpoon still contains its wartime radar intact and functional. Also joining this year’s NAHI event is an exquisitely restored Supermarine Spitfire. When peering into the cockpit of this warbird, it is hard to imagine flying an aircraft without even floorboards. Indeed, the bottom of the cockpit is open, exposing oil and fuel lines, control cables and structure.

Moving further down the line, the light greets more air machines. At this end of the line, there are no machines of commerce or peace. Here are the machines of war. Here, past the vendors, the Cessna, Dassault, TBM, Epic and Breitling displays, is the Unlimited Class Pits. Behind them, the T-6 Class pits. Machines that less than a century ago were created by those designers at North American, Hawker, Grumman, and Yakolev to battle for supremacy of the skies now rest silently in the early morning dew.

The T-6 area of the pits is all North American Aviation. Often derided and praised as a trainer aircraft, sometimes that opinion changing from one extreme to another within the time of one flight, the T-6 and its variants have nonetheless trained a vast number of pilots. Used as an advanced trainer during WWII, the fighter pilots of the United States learned to fly and fight in this aircraft. Tricky to fly and tricky on the ground, it has been said by more than one pilot; if you can fly a T-6, you can fly almost anything. It is still used in this role by various private pilot training organizations. However, at Reno, these T-6’s get to race. By no means fast compared to modern aircraft, the extremely similar specifications between the aircraft in the field of racers makes for some stiff and exciting competition. Louder than almost anything flying, there is no mistaking the sound of a T-6 passing home pylon at race power, its propeller shredding the air, the tips at near sonic speed. All conversation ceases until they round Pylon 1 and head for the back stretch.

As the light gets brighter though, something is different. A Japanese built Mitsubishi A6M Zero brought by the Commemorative Air Force sits silently on the ramp not far from two Grumman F8F Bearcats and an F7F Tigercat. Beautifully restored, the Zero, once one of the most feared enemy aircraft in the Pacific theater of WWII, is rolled out every day of the show along with one of the Bearcats. Joining them is an unbelievable Supermarine Spitfire Mark XIV, which also is provided by the Commemorative Air Force. Together, these three aircraft, along with the P-51 Mustang “Man O War” and the F7F, put on an impressive display with immeasurable historical significance. The maneuvers these aircraft perform are the same maneuvers used to fight and win in the war torn skies over Europe and the Pacific. But here, now, times are different. Loops, rolls, low passes, they almost seem to play with each other across the sky. The Bearcat performs thunderous high loops and barrel rolls while the Mustang whistles and whines its way through photo passes and broad turns. The Zero performs exceptional photo passes as the Spitfire, with its 5-bladed Rotol propeller, is almost too fast to catch on camera. Occasionally, one, or all, of them will flex a little muscle and the sound of an R-2800, Merlin or Griffon will fill the air, each aircraft performing a fast, low pass. Once mortal enemies, these aircraft now fly together, honoring the aviators on all sides of WWII.

But what of the other Bearcat, as well as the Hawker Sea Furies and other P-51 Mustangs that are now illuminated? Without question, they are what they are, but they are different from the perfectly restored aircraft of the Heritage flight. Gone from the wings are the guns, the armor plate from the cockpits, the heavy items that once menaced their designs. Their skins are covered in paint of purple, yellow, red, white and blue. Others are polished aluminum, while a few still retain their service colors. All are waxed and polished to glass-like finishes. The engines are modified from factory, the airframes purified.

The Bearcat remaining is Rare Bear. Quite possibly the most modified aircraft at the races, this aircraft was once a wreck. Rescued by Lyle Shelton, her factory R-2800 power plant was replaced by the far more powerful, heavily massaged R-3350. Her wings clipped, flaps sealed, and fitted with a boil off oil cooling system, she is a far cry from the aircraft that left the factory over 60 years ago. Now her purpose is speed, and lots of it. She currently holds several world records. Definitely a fan favorite, the orange and blue paint seems to amplify every ray of light that touches it.

Next to the Bear, as Rare Bear is affectionately known, is the F7F.  Featuring chrome spinners not often found on this type, and wearing Marine Corps colors, it is a real treat to see this aircraft fly with the Commemorative Air Force aircraft. The impossibly narrow fuselage and large R-2800 engines give this aircraft an appearance like none other.

 Moving through the rows of aircraft, Race 232, a Hawker Sea Fury, with an R-3350 replacing its factory Bristol Centaurus engine, looks ready to take the trophy. This was not to be though, as on Saturday while rounding home pylon, the intake scoop, and possibly more failed, breaking off the aircraft and causing a massive backfire which ended the racing for the team. Expert pilot Hoot Gibson, no stranger to dead-stick landings after successfully doing so with the space shuttle on multiple occasions, eased the crippled bird home to a perfect landing, even keeping the engine running, if not making any power.

Wearing her original colors and sporting a 5-bladed propeller of her own, another Sea Fury sits across from Race 232. Making this particular Sea Fury even more special is the fact she still has the original power plant for the type, the Bristol Centaurus, installed. Exceedingly rare, these engines were the British answer to the powerful American radials that helped win the air war over Europe. She will join two other Sea Furies, one in factory colors, the other being Sawbones. Always a treat to speak with, the Sawbones crew is one of most fun groups anyone could hope to meet. And they have the most awesome blender ever conceived…. but more about that in another article.

Also present is Ol’ Yeller. Easily one of the most famous Mustangs in history, this aircraft at the hands of the venerable R.A. Bob Hoover wowed and dazzled crowds for years, with long climbs, tight loops, fast rolls and low passes. Even to this day, no one dares paint a Mustang all yellow. That honor is strictly reserved. Next to her, Clay Lacy also brought his Mustang, N64CL, itself the champion of the 1970 air races.

Along the same row, Precious Metal, her polished aluminum and yellow splotch paint finish combined with a pair of chrome propellers, reflects the light in every direction imaginable. The only Rolls Royce Griffon powered Mustang in the world, this aircraft is also the only one with a pair of counter-rotating propellers. Polished to a mirror surface, they chew through the sky, snarling, thundering and glinting like none other. Nothing sounds like this aircraft. Even fewer can go like her. Her race engine damaged in pre-race testing, a slightly modified ferry engine still propelled her to 440 mph, at 8,000 feet DA equivalent — amazing considering a stock P-51 is good for 437 at 25,000 feet DA equivalent. Could there be more in there? Her crew isn’t saying much, but they are definitely fun to speak with.

Lastly, the sunlight finds its way to the first row of the Unlimited pits. At opposite ends of the row are Voodoo and Strega. Quite possibly the fastest Mustang ever, Strega has an enviable record. She has won a whopping 10 Unlimited Gold Championships, the last 4 at the hands of pilot Steve “Stevo” Hinton, Jr.  This year though… things will be different. Matt Jackson will be riding the Witch, as Strega has been nicknamed. While rounding the pylons during qualifying, the intense air pressure found a weakness in his canopy, blowing it apart and forcing an abort to the qualifying run. This put him in last place, Bronze. During the last few days he and Team Strega have put forth a herculean effort to both repair the aircraft as well as win the needed heats in Bronze and Silver, and Strega is now back in the Gold heat.

Covered in purple, yellow and green, Voodoo stands at the opposite end of the pit line. Herself a copy of the venerated Dago Red, Voodoo has always been fast, but not fast enough. This year though Steve Hinton, Jr. is piloting Voodoo. Her engine built by her pilot, every inch of her checked, double checked, and triple checked, Voodoo looks and sounds stronger than ever. Could this be her year? She has never won Reno Gold before. It’s going to be a tough race. Rare Bear sounds wonderful and is the current world record holder, Precious Metal tears up the sky, posting whopping times and speeds on what should be nothing more than a tuned ferry engine, and Strega certainly isn’t going away.

Between them is Czech Mate. Nicknamed the “Giant Killer”, what once was a small, 750 hp military training aircraft from the Soviet Union has been transformed into a 2,000+ horsepower speed demon. By far the smallest of the Unlimited racers, what it lacks in stature, she makes up in heart. This year she flies on completely new wings, a revised engine and good spirits of her team. A surprise could be in store.

The sun rises higher, the crowds flow in, the vendors’ grills warm up. Soon, the clouds have broken, blue sky reveals itself and the smells of hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken grilling mixes with sunscreen, oil, aluminum, exhaust and fuel. The flight demonstrations kick-off after the Formula One races. Clay Lacy flies his Lear 35 through a beautiful routine right after a classic North American Sabreliner struts her stuff. Neither of these aircraft were originally considered for doing aerobatics during their design phases, but in the hands of their expert pilots, they dance and streak across the sky, smoke systems running. Shortly afterward the Patriot flight demonstration team delivers another incredible performance. Flying the L-39 high performance trainer jet developed in what was then Czechoslovakia, the team performed many of the same maneuvers featured by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds.

Now it begins.

It is Sunday, the sun is high overhead, the Unlimited Racers have been towed to their positions on the flight line. It is time for the Unlimited Gold race; the fastest, often most nerve wracking, and definitely most exciting 8 laps in racing. The announcers introduce the aircraft and pilots to the crowd. Then it is time to start engines. Each pilot retreats into his mind, focusing, and into the cockpit, bonding with the aircraft. The connection between pilot and aircraft is indescribable and a special unspoken language exists between the two. Master switches are thrown, instruments come to life. Checklists are followed and finally starters engaged. Down the line of highly modified warbirds, propellers begin to slowly turn. Whining, clunking and whirring the engines turn over, oil flowing over critical components before ignition. After what seems like minutes, but is only seconds, magnetos are engaged and fuel controls opened. With spits, cracks, pops, hisses and clouds of smoke, the engines angrily snort themselves to life, visibly shaking their airframes. The Mustangs rev, with pops and crackles emanating from their twelve short exhaust stacks. The Bear and the Sea Furies roar, their radial engines producing a deeper tone, but no less intimidating. The sound is deafening and beautiful. Some say vintage aircraft have an energy, a being, even a soul. Whether or not this is true is a matter of opinion, but right now it is time to race and the aircraft seem to  know it.

Once in the air, the airport falls eerily quiet. The race aircraft are long gone, traveling in a wide arc behind the mountain to the south of Stead Field and they form into a line abreast for the start of the race. Yet there is an energy that permeates the entire area, the air feels taught, the crowd is quiet, anticipation builds. Faintly, the rumble of horsepower can be heard and over the right shoulder of the crowd, they’re coming down the “chute”. With the call, “You’ve got a race” from veteran and highly respected pilot Steve Hinton, Sr. in the pace plane, the air erupts into a thunderous cacophony of noise. Accelerating with breathtaking speed, Voodoo, in the pole position, rolls into the first pylon, Rare Bear clawing at her tail. Behind her, Czech Mate rolls in as well, Precious Metal right behind her. It doesn’t take long for the crowd to realize three things:  Voodoo is flat out fast, Czech Mate has found some serious speed, and Strega is on the move. With each lap, Matt Jackson winds Strega’s 1,650 cu. in. Merlin V12 up ever more, deftly passing Sawbones and Dreadnought, both Sea Furies. Next in his sights, Precious Metal, whom he passes. Not to be completely outdone, Precious Metal holds onto Strega for half a lap. Screaming around home pylon in front of the stands, Steve Hinton, Jr. in Voodoo holds the lead, with Rare Bear still thundering behind him. Czech Mate pulls third but her new speed is astounding, and soon the American made R-2800 shoehorned onto her nose is hauling the little Russian airframe past Rare Bear at over 450 mph. Precious Metal thunders past, her twin propellers and massive Griffon engine creating an unmistakable sight and sound. The shrill scream of Strega’s engine as she slings around home pylon lets everyone know she is after first place. Half way through the race, Voodoo is savagely chewing up the sky, her purpose built race engine developing more horsepower, more manifold pressure and more rpm than its wartime siblings ever could have. Looking smooth and collected, Stevo coaxes Voodoo past home pylon again with the furious scream of a Merlin engine at race power settings. But behind her Strega surges, her specially prepared race engine also displaying performance far beyond what the designers could have ever hoped to see. Gallons of oil per minute at very high pressures thrust through the engines, fighting against the incredible forces being generated and the resulting metal-on-metal contact that would be fatal for the engine. Airframes flex against the 5 G’s of lateral acceleration. Pilots fight the turbulent bumps and eddies that threaten to throw them off the smoothest, fastest line around the race course. Man and machine split the sky at nearly 500mph,   testing the limits of piston powered flight.

Soon Strega has felled Czech Mate and the last two laps will feature what are possibly, at least on this day, the fastest piston engine, propeller driven aircraft in the world roaring through the air in a thrilling chase for Reno Gold. Strega inches closer, while Voodoo keeps pulling. Steve pushes the purple and yellow Mustang harder, faster, staying just ahead of the Witch. Strega charges forward, chasing her former pilot; Voodoo charges back, her pilot knowing full well the potential of the pilot-aircraft combination behind him. There is no doubt Strega is coming after the purple Mustang. More manifold pressure, more rpm, more horsepower, more speed is coaxed from both aircraft and engine. Can Voodoo hold? Can her engine resist the tremendous forces threatening to tear it apart? Can the airframe remain stable? Will Strega find the speed? Will Rare Bear surge ahead? Is there more left in Czech Mate? The whoops and cheers of the crowd grow, the sonorous, intoxicating, shrill sound of two Merlin V12s streaking past home pylon fills the air. All eyes are now focused on two of the fastest propeller driven aircraft in the world. Rounding the back stretch of the final lap and into the valley of speed, Voodoo rolling into the last turn, Strega matching her move for move, history will be continued. On this perfect September day Voodoo will find the speed to hold off Strega and clinch the fifth consecutive Reno championship for pilot Steven Hinton and the first for the team. Strega turns in a very respectable second, and Czech Mate surprises everyone with third. As they pull up at home pylon, checkered flag waving, trading airspeed for altitude, opening cooling doors and slowing to cool off their growling, tortured race engines, it has been witnessed by thousands what the designers of these great machines never did, but we know they always thought and dreamed of.  Here, on the last lap of the National Championship Air Races, at over 475 mph, aircraft and engines from countries often mortal enemies of each other have come together to realize their designers’ wildest dreams. Here, at the National Championship Air Races, we have experienced machines originally of war in a way their designers always wanted; a clean, light, pure flying machine flown by the best pilots at the limits of what a man and aircraft can do.

Story by Beau.

 

 

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