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 3 of 4)
All true, says Tom Rowe, whose Phoenix, Arizona-based Worldwide Warbirds has imported 15 L-39s in the last year, “but every L-39 owner will tell you the planes go faster and burn less fuel than they really do! It’s funny. The planes have the highest up-time of any military training jet ever built and they’re unequalled in many ways, but they’re not rocket ships. There are other aircraft out there that are close to them in price that perform better, but aren’t air-conditioned or pressurized. And you’ve got to be careful, because a lot of the early C models have spent a lot of time sitting in a field somewhere and they require a heck of a lot of work.”
With nearly 3,000 manufactured and used everywhere from Afghanistan to Iraq, they and their parts remain plentiful and cheap. Even after they have been overhauled, painted, and loaded with new Western avionics, Kirlin sells his Albatroses for only $200,000 to $400,000. “You can get one for half the cost of a new Bonanza,” he says.
“Bingo! It hit me,” says Rick Vandam, who was friends with Kirlin and others with L-39s. “The Albatros fit perfectly. Availability, looks, simplicity. It’s such an easy airplane to fly, which means we could feature some of the top pilots and see who flies the best.”
Both to placate the FAA and to “put the personalities in front of the crowd, rather than the airplanes,” in the words of Houghton, Reno invited veterans of racing and high-performance fighters to fly the first race last September 13. It became one of the many events cancelled by the upheaval of September 11. This year, Unlimited racers Skip Holm and Jimmy Leeward, AT-6 champion Mary Dilda, former astronauts Hoot Gibson and Curt Brown, and Sport class president and former Navy F-4 pilot Lee Behel will race in identical L-39s on loan from various owners. The pilots’ starting positions will be determined by a random drawing before each race, and they’ll get points based on their finishing positions and the number of times they pass competitors. Adding to the novelty, the pilots’ pre-race briefing will be conducted in public. “We want to focus on the pilots instead of planes like Rare Bear or Strega,” says Vandam.
For the first time at Reno, blowing an engine won’t be a problem. An L-39 will be race-ready the moment it hits Stead Field, and it will be able to run all day with hardly a burp. “It’s so much more reliable and easy to fly,” says Leeward. “You’re never operating out of the envelope and you’re not waiting for technical problems or an engine to quit. And the cost is affordable.”
“L-39s are responsive and a little underpowered.” says Dilda, a DC-10 captain for Federal Express. Because coming around the pylons bleeds off airspeed and the Albatros has no afterburner, there’s no way to accelerate quickly, and that, Dilda says, “will make it a real pilot’s race.”
Holm agrees. Although Unlimited pilots like him and Leeward have more experience flying the course at high speeds than T-6 and Sport class vets like Dilda and Behel, the 400-odd-mph lap speeds won’t be as high as that of the fastest Unlimiteds. “If we were flying 100 mph faster, I’d have a real advantage,” he says, “but at that speed the people flying ’em will figure it out real quick.” With equally matched airplanes in the hands of skilled pilots, Reno wants a close race of bunched racers duking it out at high speeds.
But are L-39s the future of air racing? Even some of the jet class racers themselves wonder whether the very elements that make the L-39 such an acceptable race airplane will make the event more show and less edge-of-your-seat race. After all, part of the thrill of Unlimited racing is the knowledge that a Strega or Dago Red is a rare, million-dollar beast flying at the very edge of stability, and that at any moment the finely tuned pistons hammering at pressures unimagined by the original designers might explode in catastrophic failure. Is flying a quiet, pressurized, reliable, air-conditioned airplane exciting enough to satiate a crowd that lives for fire and noise and engine builders with the skill of magicians?