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The Need for Speed: Reno!

by Jeremy Cox 1. October 2006 00:00
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While standing in the ‘A' Boarding Group queue at the Phoenix airport with my wife Deb on our way to Reno, Nevada to attend the 43rd Annual Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show last month, a fellow race goer that we became acquainted with while waiting to board, Mr. Dan Harden, a contract A&P mechanic, made the very insightful comment that "Airline Flying is so incongruous when connected with Air Racing. We finally landed in Reno almost an hour late. The Air Races are held just north of Reno, over in the next valley at the old Stead Airforce Base, now Stead Airfield. Why here? Well the Reno National Championship Air Races have been here since the early 1960s because it was chosen as the ending destination for a Transcontinental Race that started in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Reno Air Racing field consisted of 28 Biplane Category Aircraft (the field consists of mainly various iterations of the Pitts Special), 24 Formula One Category Aircraft (the field consists of various iterations of the Cassutt), 24 T6 Category Aircraft (North American's own supersonic propeller blade-tip trainer; what a fantastic noise they all make!), 29 Sport Category Aircraft (the field consists of lots of different and expensive fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon designs like the Glasair, Lancair, Venture, Harmon Rocket, etc.), 11 Jet Category Aircraft (the field consists entirely of the Czech Republic built Aero Vodochody Albatros L-39 strike-fighter/jet-trainer), and finally, everyone's favorite, 32 Unlimited Category Aircraft (the field mainly consists of ‘souped-up' venerable old lady's from World War II and the 1950's like the North American P-51 Mustang, Hawker Sea Fury, and the Grumman Bearcat.) Almost all of the 148 aircraft after flying the qualifying rounds earlier in the week (This event is played out over seven days, but the actual races officially begins at lunchtime on a Wednesday and end at five pm on Sunday with the final Unlimited Race ‘Gold'), each flew 4 to six Heats which then narrowed the field down to three final races for each category of aircraft: Bronze, Silver and Gold. The size and length of the Pylon delineated race courses vary by the category of the aircraft competing; with the longest, egg-shaped course reserved for the Jet and Unlimited category aircraft (10 – 40 foot high pylons, over approximately 8.5 Miles, and the Formula One and Biplane categories sharing the shortest, oval course of 7 pylons over approximately 3.0 miles. In between each race an Air or Ground based Display would fill the gap of time. This massive event was also supplemented by numerous race, aviation paraphernalia, aviation collectables and food vendor stands, a Static Display of Military aircraft and the additional paid admission entry to the Race Pits.


On Sunday the Unlimited Gold Race was won Mr. Michael Brown from Carson City, Nevada in his Hawker Sea Fury at a speed of almost 482 MPH. The fastest aircraft around the Unlimited course this weekend, was the United States Navy Demonstration Team's FA18 Super Hornet, which was clocked at an exciting 683 MPH. There was enough humidity in the high desert atmosphere of Reno, to see the visible onset of a sonic boom. Fortunately for the demonstration pilot, he managed to keep the aircraft from tearing the air apart enough to break the sound barrier and create a sonic boom, because, as the air show announcer said ‘He will be looking for a different line of work, if he does shatter everyone's car windows, here today.'

That exhibition of immense speed impelled me to reflect afterwards, that ever since the Wright Flyer powered its way across 852 feet of sand at Kill Devil Hills, at a speed of 31 MPH, a large contingent of people working within the then, ever growing aviation industry, have focused on making powered aircraft fly faster and faster and faster. Before the Wrights cracked the code of powered flight, man had to be content with either traveling by the fastest form of transportation at that time, the steam locomotive, the fastest of which could attain a breathtaking speed of about 60 MPH; or stand transfixed in awe of the Peregrine Falcon, which is the World's fastest bird, which can surpass 200 MPH in a dive. Powered Aircraft contraptions started to become more and more prolific in both America and Europe, and after the famed Frenchman, Monsieur Louis Bleriot had successfully crossed the English Channel, less than five years after Wilber and Orville had succeeded with their experiments, the World's first official Air Race took place in France on the outskirts of the beautiful champagne and cathedral city of Reims. Sponsored by newspaperman Mr. James ‘Gordon Bennett', publisher of both the New York and Paris Herald newspaper, pioneer flyers came from all over the world to compete for prize money and ultimately the Gordon Bennett Trophy.

American pioneer, Glenn Curtis pipped Monsieur Bleriot to the trophy by almost 6 seconds, having flown a 12 mile course (two circuits of 6 miles) at an average speed of slightly more than 59 MPH. Soon, as aircraft design matured into a reasonably reliable science, the Air Racing scene exploded. Next came the famous Trophy spawned by Monsieur Jacques Schneider, the French Under-Secretary of the Air. This famous competition ultimately led to the creation of the venerable and much loved, Supermarine Spitfire. Englishman, Mr. Reginald Joseph (R.J.) Mitchell's Supermarine S6B Seaplane set a new World Speed Record during it's plight to win the Schneider Trophy, by flying the approximately 6 ½ mile course for 28 laps, achieved an average speed of just over 340 MPH. Shortly after the win over the waters of Southampton, Mitchell's S6B again set a new World Record at 407 MPH. This was broken three years later by the Italian built Macchi MC.72 which set the standing World Speed Record for Seaplanes of almost 441 MPH. Also during the years between the disastrous events of the two World Wars, Air Racing blossomed all over the United States, with the Thompson, Pulitzer, Aerol and Bendix Trophies hotly contested for by the likes of Jimmy Doolittle, Roscoe Turner, Amelia Earhart, and Wiley Post, to drop a few well known names.

Racing Speeds remained in the 300+ MPH range, while these times were given the name of ‘the Golden Age of Air Racing.' After the massive human cost of the events of World War II had passed, Air Racing evolved into the same basic form and speeds that can still be seen every September in Nevada. If you ever wanted to have a crack at competing at Reno yourself, you may ask the question: ‘How does one qualify to compete at the Reno National Championship Air Races?' Well other than needing to have access to a very, very fast aircraft along with the money and infrastructure to support your new hobby competing in what is called the ‘World's fastest motor sport,' you will need to attend and successfully be signed off at the Annual Pylon Racing Seminar hosted by the Reno Air Racing Association.

Held every June, the students and repeat race pilots all meet to study, talk and practice the required flying techniques along with the critical strategies that must be mastered if things go wrong. According to the Commemorative Program that I brought home with me back to St. Louis, one of the Reno Air Racing Association's veteran racer and Pylon Racing Seminar instructor, Mr. Alan Preston, who has previously won the National Championship Formula One Title twice and the Biplane Title once, is quoted as saying that the annual seminar is necessary because ‘…non-cooperative formation flying with high-performance aircraft maneuvering close to the ground at the maximum speeds the machines and pilots can handle, is not easy.' I'll say! Interestingly enough, did you know that…. the World's fastest manned, Jet Aircraft, is reported to be the 1960's Lockheed SR-71A ‘Blackbird' with its 2,193+ MPH record set in 1976? The World's fastest Rocket Powered, manned Aircraft is the North American Aviation X-15A-2, which set a 4,520 MPH speed record in 1967. Beyond the Earth's atmosphere, the technology of the 1960's still prevails, as the current holder of the World's fastest manned vehicle is still held by the Apollo 10 Capsule on re-entry at a staggering recorded speed of 24,790 MPH in 1969. This record is reasonably, closely followed by the technology of the 1980's which spawned the Rockwell Space Transportation System (STS) ‘Space Shuttle.' The ill fated shuttle ‘Columbia' was officially clocked doing 17,000 MPH during its re-entry in 1981. Finally, the World's fastest man-made, (un-manned) object harks back to the 1970's. This is the American and German built research spacecraft, ‘Helios B' which was recorded traveling through space at 150,000 MPH in 1976.

As a parting gift, I would like to mention that the Guinness Book of Records states that a ‘Racing' Snail was officially clocked at 12,488 HPM (Hours Per Mile.) Next month is the Quarterly Market Report. Until then, have a great month. Maybe I will see some of you in person in Orlando at this year's NBAA Convention? If you are going to attend, please plan on stopping by the GlobalAir.com Booth to say hello to Jeff and his merry crew. Oh, and Dan, I sincerely hope that you are successful in getting a flight-line wrenching position with the Rocket Racing League that is forming up, out in New Mexico.

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Jeremy Cox



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