Reno Enters the Jet Age
They're not as fast as the top Unlimiteds, but the national air racing organization is gambling on jets to boost attendance.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
(Page 2 of 4)
There was only one problem. The kind of free-for-all that made the exhibition race—and the premier Unlimited class—fast and exciting seemed impossible with military jets. The fastest, highly modified Mustangs, Bearcats, and Sea Furies are all closely matched in performance and, barring a technological breakthrough, are hard put to break 500 mph doing laps. But jets come in all shapes and sizes, from straight wing to swept wing, some with afterburner and some without. The speed difference between an Aero Vodochody L-39 and a MiG-15 or F-86 is nearly 300 mph. “We couldn’t figure out a way to make it a fair race,” says Bill Eck, chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association.
Competition issues aside, the FAA gets goosebumps at the idea of civilians operating military jets anywhere, let alone on a nine-mile race course originally designed for lap speeds of 450 mph and surrounded by houses on three sides and 50,000 people on the fourth. The agency is still haunted by what Vandam calls “the Farrell’s ice cream store incident.” In 1972, a civilian-operated F-86 slammed into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor in Sacramento, California, killing 22 people, including 12 children.When Vandam brought up racing jets to the FAA, “they immediately brought up Farrell’s,” he says. Although course modifications allowed speeds of up to 550 mph, says Clarence Bohartz, FAA flight standards and operations inspector at Reno, that still wasn’t fast enough for afterburning, swept-wing jets like MiG-17s and F-86Ds. Indeed, Vandam has flown the course at 570 mph in a MiG-17, and he says, “It’s very difficult to stay within its confines.”
Still another problem was image. Jet fighters though they were, Sabres, MiG-15s and -17s, T-33s, and most of the other likely airplanes available looked old, just when Reno was trying to look new. “They say ‘Korea,’ ” says Holm. What Reno needed seemed impossibly contradictory: a jet fighter whose sleek lines raised your adrenaline, but wasn’t too fast or unstable; one that looked modern, but didn’t require a national budget to own or operate. And there had to be enough of them to draw a racing field year after year.
The L-39 Albatros might have been custom designed for those requirements. In the exotic zoo of warbirds becoming available to civilians, the Czechoslovakian-made airplane exemplified all the best characteristics of the Eastern Bloc. “The L-39 was designed to be operated well in some awful place without a paved runway by an 18-year-old with nothing but a toolbox and who may not be able to read,” says Don Kirlin. A 737 captain for US Airways and ex-Navy pilot who is vocal in his love of speed and performance, Kirlin has imported 50 of the 197 L-39s registered by the FAA. His latest arrivals, a shipment from Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, stand in various states of repair in his hangar in Quincy, Illinois, a Midwestern monument to the airplanes and air forces that just last week, it seems, were U.S. adversaries. (Across the runway in another hangar perch his two MiG-29s.) Some rest wingless in their shipping fixtures, while others, in weathered camouflage, look like they had yesterday been poised on a Central Asia flightline. “They look bad,” says Kirlin, “but that’s just because they’ve been outside their whole life. They have really low flight time.”
Eastern Bloc airplanes are often derided as crude, but Kirlin is quick to extol their virtues. “You look at these planes and you so value their designers’ thinking; they’re so simple and robust,” he says.
As a jet trainer the Albatros is easy to fly; the Soviets were known to solo pilots in the airplane with as little as 20 hours of total time. As a light attack jet it was meant to be operated on the front lines from Siberia to Central Asia, so it can take off on dirt runways in 1,500 feet and land in 2,000. It has stout landing gear and balloon tires suitable for landing on your average East German wheat field or American country club fairway. It is simply built and simple to maintain, with color-coded plumbing, for instance. A late-model airplane equipped with a 3,800-pound-thrust turbofan engine, it uses a mere 145 gallons of fuel an hour, less than half what an F-86, T-33, or MiG-17 uses. To start a MiG requires a bulky auxiliary power unit “and a lot of praying,” says Kirlin; an Albatros carries a self-starting APU. And the Albatros is no Yugo. With a top speed of 485 mph at 19,000 feet, a ceiling of 36,100 feet, and a fully aerobatic airframe, the L-39 performs like a thoroughbred.
“It’s the highest quality aircraft of its type,” says Gary Dyer, a recently retired 747 captain who took a ride in one at Reno a few years back and promptly bought one for himself, which he is loaning to the race. “It’s modern. Reliable. Pressurized. Rugged and low-cost, with air conditioning and anti-skid brakes. It’s the plane the Eastern Bloc used to train pilots who had never before flown before putting them in a MiG-21. I can do a little sightseeing and a little aerobatics in it.”
“It is a hot little airplane,” Kirlin says, “but it’s as close to pilot-proof as can be.” At Mach .78, speed brakes automatically deploy. At 176 mph, the flaps automatically retract. Still, says Kirlin, “when you’ve got your hands on the throttle and stick, you know you’ve got something serious under you.”