Will Whiteside has big plans for his Yak-3U racer SteadFast, and most involve setting world records. He and his team bagged the first record last October when he flew the Yak at 416 mph over a three-kilometer course (airspacemag.com/fastyak), beating a replica Hughes H-1 racer that had held the record since 2002. Today Whiteside is shooting for the records in time to climb to 3,000 and 6,000 meters—approximately 10,000 and 20,000 feet. His team has had an early breakfast a couple miles from the airport at the Kaffe Mocha and Grill, where they gather on appointed mornings, always in the same corner. Now they’ve assembled at Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport (it’s named after the “Peanuts” cartoonist) in California, where SteadFast is hangared.
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Whiteside, 41, flew for an airline for a while and now pilots for two Sonoma-area families who each own a half share in a very civilized turboprop twin. But he caught the racing bug early. First it was motorcycles, then, in 2005 at the national air races in Reno, Nevada, he started competing in a small sportplane, a Glasair III. The following year, Whiteside began racing the Yak—in the Unlimited class, for aircraft weighing more than 4,500 pounds. The class is dominated by World War II-era warbirds, and, although Whiteside has continued to lead the SteadFast racing team, since 2008, he’s been flying a heavier and faster Unlimited, the P-51 Mustang Voodoo, owned by California businessman Bob Button. In Voodoo, Whiteside was stalking Unlimited Gold, but the Mustang probably won’t make an appearance this September. Button has it up for sale. Last year, an accident causing 11 fatalities put the entire event at risk, but it looks like the Reno races will go ahead this year, and, if everything goes according to Whiteside’s plans, he’ll be there with the Yak and a fistful of world records.
This particular Yak came from Eddie Andreini, another Californian who flies Yaks and other warbirds in airshows. It’s been completely rebuilt, as all the crew members explain with some pride. When it was assembled in Romania in 2005 by Avioane, ostensibly as a trainer, it became the last factory-built propeller-driven Russian aircraft with a history as a fighter, according to Whiteside. And also, to hear this team tell it, one of the worst built.
Chris Seppler is a tall, lanky guy with an easy grin, a mane of silver hair, and a matching Vandyke who joined the crew after meeting Whiteside at the Santa Rosa hangar a couple of years ago. “The airplane was a mess,” Seppler says. “The wings had been assembled badly and were completely out of alignment, so they were completely rebuilt, the brakes modernized [at the factory, from pneumatic to hydraulic], and a new canopy installed. It’s like a completely different airplane.”
The team also added an injection system that shoots a 50-50 methanol-and-water mix into the cylinders when the engine is running at high power settings. Designed by engineer Pete Law, the anti-detonation injection, or ADI, system prevents the fuel-air mixture in each cylinder from detonating before the spark plug ignites it. If that were to happen, there would be a huge spike of heat and a sound known as engine knock, and after too much of that, the engine would fail.
Whiteside estimates that the ADI system gives him 300 or more additional horsepower. Without an ADI system cooling the cylinders, the engine would rely more heavily on fuel for cooling, and the team would have to run 20 percent more fuel in the fuel-air mix. More fuel in the mix impairs engine performance; leaning the mixture improves it, but leaves the engine vulnerable to excess heat. And that’s what the ADI system corrects: The methanol burns up, and the water vaporizes, taking heat with it.
Getting an airplane in shape to chase a world record is different from tuning one to race around a course at close to 500 mph, but Whiteside is driven to do both for the same reason. “The team is number one—by far,” he says. “Just to be able to have all these different personalities come out. Each one has his own specialty. We have introverts and extroverts, and [my role is] just to keep it going in a direction and try to keep everybody happy.”
There’s no apparent hierarchy in this team, but one man is The Man: Whiteside. If he says he wants something taken care of, he means you, the nearest crew member—Take care of it—and you do. And every member of the crew seems to know all the tasks it takes to support an aircraft at this level, so the final effect is like watching a defensive backfield shift to adjust during a football game.
The first chore of this late-February morning, as the doors slide away and the hangar yawns open, is an absolute imperative for record attempts: to weigh the airplane precisely with a calibrated and certified set of scales. Pilots can compete for recognition by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) and its U.S. representative, the National Aeronautic Association, in 23 weight classes, ranging from under 300 kilograms (about 600 pounds) to over 500,000 kilograms. Whiteside is aiming at two: He can do this because the Yak’s empty weight, about 5,300 pounds (2,400 kilograms), puts it astride a boundary between two weight classes: the first, aircraft weighing 1,750 to 3,000 kilograms, and the second, 3,000 to 6,000 kilograms. Fill all the tanks and maybe even add some ballast, and they can meet the requirement to weigh 50 pounds more than the minimum weight in the heavier category.
The team has a set of digital scales designed to be placed under an airplane’s landing gear tires—two under the mains and a third for the tailwheel. To get the Yak’s three wheels up and centered on the platforms, the team attaches the airplane’s towing fixture to a heavy pickup truck. The trick is to know where to place the scales so that when the truck moves the airplane, all three wheels will roll the same distance and arrive at the right spot at the same time. So out come measuring tapes as the crew members spot the small square platforms and ramps. They don’t get it on the first try, and it takes a couple of back-and-forths before the airplane is in position.