Reno Air Race Pylon Pictures, Behind the Scenes


For those whom have been to the Reno Air Races, they’re aware of the dedication and other-worldliness of the Air Races; almost like a cult dedicated to air racing.  As unique as the races are, there’s a whole different side which most attendees of the races don’t get to see – life at the Reno pylons.

For the spectators, the pylons appear to be metal oil drums on top of telephone poles, and that’s more or less what they are – nothing fancy at all.  From the stands, the pylon judges cannot even be seen grouped around the base of the pylons.  Twice a day, media personnel are allowed onto buses out to the pylons.  Even to the group of people lucky enough to go out to the pylons, there is still some aura of mystery which encapsulates the dirt area at the base of the pylons.  Do not interrupt the judges during the race or immediately after, do not cross the imaginary line which connects the active pylons, and always listen to the RARA members.  Now with the heightened safety impositions after the 2011 races, there is a new shuffling from location to location as different races and performances start and stop.

There are a lot of rules for media personnel at the races, even more if they elect to go out to the pylons.  Once out at the pylons, there is literally nothing.  The porta potty is the luxurious accommodation, sometimes there are even two porta potties.  The busses offer the only shade, and water, but with no active air conditioning on the bus during the races, it’s more comfortable to brave the sun and enjoy the slightest of breezes.


The Luxurious Pylon Accommodations


Busses Offer Shade and Water and a Reminder of Civilization

Once a newcomer figures out how much they can stick their neck out – so to speak – while at the pylons, it’s an amazing experience.  Inexplicably amazing.  Having racers pass by less than 100 feet off the ground, 40 feet away, sometimes doing better than 500mph; suffice to say it’s something to experience rather than read about.

After the individual race is over, RARA has scheduled for performances in between races to keep the audience’s interest.  The scheduling at Reno is, honestly, about the best I’ve ever experienced.  At the pylons, you take the good with the bad, however.  Fantastic views of the race, nearly no view of the intermission performers.  The only logical solution is, of course, to attend the races multiple days to see everything – it is the only logical thing to do.  Standing at the opposite side from the general crowd lends to a very different view of the acrobatic performances.  When the aircraft does a large turn out over the field, or a minimum radius turn, the aircraft come nearly overhead.


Steve Hinton Sr. Takes the CT-33 out of Stead Field, Leading the Unlimited Race to the Sky Just Past the Pylon Crew


Stewart Dawson Easting Rare Bear Out on the Course Behind Steve Hinton Sr.

When performers intend on some sequence of maneuvers which are directed to impress the crowd at show center, more than a mile away, they rarely look as intended from the infield.  An acrobatic aircraft, like a Pitts or Extra, are only a smoke trail to the naked eye.  A forty foot wingspan at 6,000 feet is a speck to the naked eye.


An Acrobatic Performer as the Human Eye Perceives the Intermission Show

A long lens brings the aircraft to a somewhat recognizable speck, when viewed through the camera viewfinder.  The heat haze at that distance in the Reno summer makes all objects perform a strange heat-induced dance.


An F-15 Making a Pass Across Show Center, at 400mm of Zoom

All too often I spend the whole airshow watching through the half inch viewfinder on the camera – the picture on a five inch television is a significantly better view – but every once in a while, I have the good sense to put the camera down and actually watch events transpire; like in real life.  The Reno pylons are a place this rule should be non-optional for photographers, if only once.  The camera just cannot replicate the imagery your mind puts together, coupled with the sounds of racing.  What the camera can do, however, is scare you.  Watching an Unlimited racer barrel towards you at full throttle, almost at you eye level, at a 60° bank angle, then watch it hit the slightest of gusts which increases the roll angle to knife edge to compensate.  In an instant, and only for an instant, you have what appears to be an Unlimited racer coming directly at you, knife edge, at 500 miles per hour.  As fast as it happens, it disappears.  With a super telephoto lens, this seems like it’s happening inches from your face, not at a couple hundred feet.  My wife likes my safety, so she doesn’treally need to know about always-present gust induced roll upsets during air racing.


Thom Richard Eases Precious Metal into a Bank Around Pylon 7

All these alleged issues summed could not keep me from wanting to go to the pylons every day I went to the races.  The opportunity, unparalleled.The sounds, blissful.  Even the smells, burnt jet fuel and avgas, are part of the experience.  The pictures which result from this experience are unrivaled.  That’s not to say pushing the limits with photography aren’t demanding, but when everything lines up, the results are fantastic.


Strega Four Laps from Unlimited Gold Victory


Dreadnought Brought Dennis Saunders a Solid Third Position in the Gold Race

To get truly spectacular photos, sometimes it takes a little more than experience, practice, expensive equipment, and prime positioning.  When things line up, just so, it’s extra special, the results.  These make the difference between hours of heat, dehydration, and agony and pure elation.


Rare Bear Fighting With 232, Just Prior to a Rare Bear Mayday with Uneventful Ending, Leaving 232 with a Second Place Finish

Without hesitation, I will always make every effort to go out to the pylons.  All the apparent downsides of desolation at the pylons are so quickly overcome when the pictures undergo review hours or days later.

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