National Championship Air Races, 2016 Edition

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What makes a person want to fly? What makes a person want to race? Surely there must be something within the human genetic code that drives certain people to push the limits of man and machine in the sky. Like a persistent itch, there are those who constantly look to the sky, always, with an insatiable desire to return. It doesn’t much matter to these people how they get there, or if the machine that carries them is made from wood and fabric or the latest composite material. So long as it flies. In the case of a small group of pilots within the aviation community, it is preferable if that particular machine is capable of rather extreme performance.

Regardless of the source of that drive, every year in the middle of September, at a small, otherwise nondescript airport in the high desert of Nevada, a group of aviators come together to scratch that itch in the most spectacular way possible. The machines they bring to Stead Field, north of Reno, shine in shades of purple, red, white and polished aluminum. Each one of them possess incredible capabilities. Only here during that one week can a person witness this rare breed of man and machine in the most unique, inspiring and fastest event in the world.

Enter the National Championship Air Races, 2016

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As is often the case, the months and weeks leading up to this yearly event are chocked full of anticipation and excitement. This year was no different. The biggest change to the races this year was the cessation of sponsorship by Breitling. With questions of the races viability in question, power implement manufacturer Stihl stepped in to fill the very big shoes needed for this event. Everyone with the love of flying and racing is grateful to this fine company for their support.

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Another of the many noteworthy stories floating around was the return of Czech Mate with a new pilot, Jay Consalvi. Absolutely no stranger to going fast from his time at the stick of both F-14’s and F/A-18’s, it was anyone’s guess how much Jay could bring to Team Czech Mate. Hopes were high for the “Giant Killer”. Adding to the team, Tiger DeStefani of Strega fame joined Jay in the quest for a Czech Mate victory. While every returning veteran of the races is a good thing new faces are both welcomed and encouraged. Though fans were no doubt disappointed “the Witch” would be sitting this one out. Perhaps Tiger had decided to give his blazingly fast red and white Mustang some time off after teaching us all the true nature of airspeed in 2015. In the end, the decision probably had more to do with money and the unfortunately somewhat difficult task it is to find a reliable sponsor. Hopefully we will see Strega return in 2017.

Also sitting this year out, Rare Bear and Race 232 were placed on static display next to the main tent in the pits. Both aircraft looked ready, but a three-way shootout between Rare Bear, Strega and Voodoo was not to be this year.

Returning to regain the title after an unfortunate DNF from a cracked coolant header tank in 2015, “Steve-o” Hinton once again strapped on the purple princess known as Voodoo. Qualifying early and looking strong the whole week, the title looked to be in Team Voodoo’s hands.

Team Precious Metal brought the mostly disassembled fuselage and wing of their one-of-a-kind Griffon-powered Mustang. As many will remember, she suffered a catastrophic engine fire in 2015. The team worked through the year to strip the damaged parts and paint. Seeing the wing and fuselage on a trailer was a reminder of the risks, and the rewards of the fastest motorsport in the world. However, this team is tenacious if nothing else. While the speculation is rampant as to what is in store for the Mustang, the secret will remain sealed for now, save for it’s going to be a very special airplane when completed. If the response to their clever fundraising- paint chips and “Flying Bricks”- is any indication, we will see Precious Metal return sooner than later.

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Rounding out the unlimited field, John “Dusty” Dowd, Jr. returned with his Yak 11, “Lylia”. Of course the Sanders Sea Furies, Dreadnought, Argonaut and 924 made sure our friends across the pond were well represented. The professionals who make up the Sanders crew have probably forgotten more about one of Britain’s greatest fighters than most people will ever know.

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Miss Virginia, an ultra-rare A model P-51, arrived on the wing of perennial veteran Wee Willy. Brought for the first time in many years by the Planes of Fame, she provided everyone a very nice tribute to the late, great Ed Maloney. Miss Virginia happily rounded the pylons with her Allison V-1710 and three bladed propeller a contrast to the mighty Merlin and four blades of her more thoroughbred siblings. With “Thanks Ed Maloney” emblazoned on the landing gear doors, she and Wee Willy provided a smile inducing reminder of a true giant in the aviation community. In fact, those words could be found on many airplanes present this year. A true testament to a man who did so much for aviation. Also making the trip, two P-51’s known as Blondie/Sparky and Rebel helped balance the pack between round and inline engines in the relatively small Unlimited Field.

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It looked like an easy win for Voodoo this year, and Steve-o had no problem getting everyone’s attention with an opening lap in the 490 mph range on Sunday. However the biggest attention easily went to Czech Mate and Jay Consalvi. More than one comment regarding his smooth flight path could be overheard and his very respectable second cemented his place as an air racer. There was not a bigger grin to be found. And more than one comment was made about a possible showdown between Jay and Steve-o. He certainly has the skills and one could be forgiven to consider what could happen if Jay had a faster steed.

As if on cue, the Sport Class stepped up to fill the void left by the smaller Unlimited Class. With no fewer than forty-one entries qualifying, the tightest and hottest racing in 2016 came from the Sport Class. Most of the class consisted of Lancairs, with a few RV’s and others thrown in for good measure.

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Innovation is high in this group. Some pilots flew relatively stock aircraft, while others brought heavily modified turbocharged speed demons. There was no shortage of excitement and drama, along with a few burned pistons this year. John Parker in Blue Thunder II gave everyone a collective breath hold when, at the conclusion of the Gold heat on Sunday, his Falconer V12 failed in phenomenal fashion with a thrown rod through the cowling. Not quite having enough energy John was able to lightly bounce Blue Thunder II through the scrub and sagebrush next to the runway and actually roll onto the pavement. The aircraft will need substantial repairs, but we are told to expect her to return again. Andrew Findlay also found the limit of his turbocharged Lancair with a couple scorched pistons, but landed safely and without incident.

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Try as they might, though, no one was catching Jeff LeVelle in his screaming Glasair III. Blasting to a 383.397 mph victory on Sunday, Jeff led the Sport Class to help make the Reno Air Races the air racing event. The crowd loved it, the racers seemed to love it, and we hope to see the Sport Class continue to grow. With Gold class race speeds approaching 400 mph, it seems certain the good times will continue.

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The T-6 Class remained a reliable source for close racing and thundering propeller noise. With fifteen aircraft qualifying there was no shortage of competition. It’s not hard to conclude the designers at North American Aviation never imagined their aircraft, designed as a trainer, would round the Reno pylons at 250 m.p.h. Nick Macy in Six Cat and Dennis Buehn in Midnight Miss III both set qualifying records of 251.792 mph and 249.277 mph respectively. Less than one second separated these two aircraft. In the end, however, it was Baron’s Revenge taking the gold with Six Cat less than a quarter second and one mile per hour behind him. Midnight Miss III clawed her way to a third place another quarter second behind and lagging by less than one mile per hour as well. The finish was a thrilling battle between the three aircraft. If you’re looking for close pilot vs pilot air racing, look no further than the T-6 class.

Consisting this year almost entirely of Pitts Specials, the biplane class easily caused a few double takes, especially when they are rocketing past home pylon at up to 200 mph. Anyway you look at it, that’s fast for what is supposed to be an aerobatic biplane. Once again, the rules of the class create very close competition and this year only two seconds separated the top two qualifiers. By the Gold race on Sunday, that time had swelled to twenty seconds. It is interesting to observe the various modifications each team has made to what is otherwise a simple design.

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The Jet Class provided fans with no fewer than sixteen aircraft. The most popular aircraft in this class is the L-39. However it also featured several L-29’s to deHaviland Vampires, a Galeb G2-A and for the first time ever a SAI Marchetti S.211. One of the unique details of the Jet Class is the FAA imposed 515 mph “speed limit” imposed on the race course. Consequentially, each pilot must fly in such a manner so his or her average speed does not exceed the limit. The result is some clever racing maneuvers to overtake and then hold a position. Qualifying averaged 513.177mph for Rick Vandam in American Spirit. Awful close indeed. Chasing him down, Sean Cushing in Fast Company qualified right behind him at 510.403mph. Unfortunately one of the Vampires was lost when the canopy burst during the race Friday. During the pull up and preparation for landing the engine flamed out, rendering the available runways out of reach. Fortunately the pilot was able to make a gentle off field landing and walked away unhurt. In the end it was Rick Vandam in American Spirit at 497.921mph to clench the Jet Gold.

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The Formula 1 class looked to be another bright spot this year with twenty-three aircraft qualified to race in the skies over Stead. Speeds in this tightly regulated class exceeded 250 mph, with Fraed Naught leading the way at 253.787 mph. Unique to this class is the rules governing the power plants. With very little allowed in terms of displacement, carburetors and pistons, the result is teams look to aerodynamics in their quest for speed. While other classes might look in many different areas for horsepower ideas, everyone looks to the Formula 1 class for making an airplane slick. Within this class can be found everything from a stock Cassutt IIIm to custom creations with more than an average amount of aerodynamic black magic worked into their designs.

Each successive year fans enjoy seeing the progress each team makes both on themselves and their aircraft. The diversity in design is fascinating and the teams are some of the best people a person could ever meet. Everyone from little kids to grandparents is welcome to ask questions and stoke their passions for aviation. Sadly, one of the more reported on moments came at the expense of Teams Hot Stuff and Endeavor. Unique to the Formula 1 class is the racehorse start. During the Gold race, Thom Richard in Hot Stuff began to suffer an engine failure while on the ground. After signaling to the race officials, shutting down his engine and then raising his canopy, Thom waited to be pushed off the runway. However a communication breakdown prevented the three aircraft from halting their take off run. As Endeavor with Steve Senegal at the controls, who could not see Hot Stuff, raised his tail on takeoff, the left wing clipped the top of Hot Stuff’s vertical stabilizer, skimmed inches from Thom’s head before hitting his hand which was holding up the canopy. The impact spun both aircraft with the landing gear from Endeavor separating from the wing and causing substantial damage to both aircraft. A truly scary moment for both pilots, however the professionalism, friendship and excellent attitude of the class prevailed. Needless to say the videos of the incident are hair raising, to say the least. Incredibly fortunate that Steve was uninjured and Thom suffered only a bruised hand. Fraed Naught went on to win the gold at 256.728mph… an impressive speed for any aircraft with the engine from a Cessna 150.

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While the Reno Air Races are first and foremost a racing event, they are also an airshow. This year the United States Navy Demonstration Team, known as the Blue Angels provided an excellent display of both the magnificent flying skills of the American Naval Aviator and the awesome performance of the F/A-18 Hornet. A little drama was added to their arrival when the left wheel brake locked on Blue Angel 7, grinding through the tire and into the wheel. The ensuing shower of sparks is not something normally associated with any landing. Despite this, the Blue Angels treated everyone to a fantastic show.

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Also on display, a C-17 from Hawaii, a C-130 from Nevada and two F-35’s from Luke combined with several Nevada Air National Guard helicopters to allow spectators the chance to get up close to some of the finest military hardware anywhere in the world.

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Perhaps the biggest favorite, at least for a certain generation was the arrival of the last two QF-4 Phantoms from Holloman AFB. These two Vietnam era jets made their arrival known with several thundering afterburner passes. The F-4 has been called the ultimate triumph of thrust over aerodynamics. With their massive J-79’s at full reheat, there was no question where the thrust came from.

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And so once again, another successful National Championship Air Races is in the pages of the history books. The future of this unique event always contains an air of uncertainty. It is an event which cannot be duplicated easily, if at all possible. Nowhere else can those with the itch to fly fast, fly low and turn left participate in this kind of event. Just as equally, to the thousands and thousands of fans who love air racing, this is an irreplaceable tradition. It is a tradition that continues to grow and evolve. Each year is different. Each running of the races will humble some and raise others to glory. Nothing can replace what this event is and will become. The future of the Races will depend on the participation of the teams just as much as the attendance of the fans. That future looks bright. As the teams prepare, 2017 is already shaping up to be another awesome time to visit the Altar of Speed in the Nevada desert.