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A trio of Sport class racers skim the high desert. (Jan Peters)

Air Racing 101

A course in handling the course at the National Championship Air Races.

When the Reno Air Races started in 1964, they were based on the premise that out in Nevada’s high desert, where there was no one around to suffer collateral damage, all bets were off. If you came to race, you knew the risk and accepted the consequences. The traditional way to learn how to race was to simply strap into a race plane and go take a good look at the pylons. The bravado of self-education added to the ethos of the sport, but it took a toll on pilots and airplanes. In the first four decades Reno lost 15 pilots. After a particularly preventable fatality in 1994, racer Alan Preston went to operations director Bill Eck and revitalized a concept that had been discussed over the years. In 1998, when the Sport class debuted at the Reno Air Races, a school to learn to race airplanes debuted with it.

From This Story

In June each year, the Reno Air Racing Association conducts a mini-camp of classroom instruction and on-course race training with the goal of introducing the rookie to the racing experience minus one key component: the pressure of a real race. It’s the same course, the same capricious winds, and the same airplanes as race week. Push too hard, make an error in judgment, overlook a critical detail, and you can tear up an airplane—or worse. But the environment of the Pylon Racing Seminar allows rookies to make mistakes and learn from them.

All racers must attend the seminar unless they have competed in the same class within the past three years. Over the years, the original four classes—the Unlimiteds (mostly World War II fighters), Formula One homebuilts, small biplanes, and North American T-6 World War II trainers—have been augmented by jets and production kit-built sport aircraft like the composite-construction Lancairs and Glasairs. The Reno Air Races earned the title of world’s fastest motor sport from the Unlimiteds, which hit speeds above 450 mph, but the Formula Ones (limited to 200-cubic-inch engines) and other classes are equally dangerous.

A clear understanding of the race pilot’s role in the complex schedule of a day of racing is what the seminar is designed to deliver, with a combination of Reno lore, repeated procedure drills, and practice emergencies. For $800 (and BYOA: bring your own airplane) and successful completion of a check ride, the aspiring pylon racer is certified to compete. Attitude control at the PRS is about the pilot, not the airplane. The instructors begin with a psychological indoctrination into the harsh realities of air racing.

“Your airplane does not love you.”

Alan Preston draws a big square on the white board behind him, representing, he says, the operational limits of the modern racing airplane. He draws a smaller, lower square that overlaps that of the airplane only partially; it represents the bounds of the pilot’s abilities. The modest intersection of the two, Preston tells the rookies, is all you have to work with to save your life if something goes wrong on the course.

That sobering conclusion is followed by an animated presentation by Tiger Destefani, a cotton farmer from Bakersfield, California, who won the Unlimited Gold six times in the modified P-51 Strega. When you “pop” the engine—Destefani’s term for catastrophic failure—declare a mayday and follow these procedures: Radio the crash trucks if possible. Pull left up off the course toward the center of the airport, level off at best glide speed, and try to set up for runway 14. Get the landing gear down early and keep the airplane as high as you can as long as you can on the approach. Shoot for landing a third of the way down the runway, because when the propeller blades go flat from loss of oil pressure and the prop disc turns into a drag plate, you will come down a lot steeper than you thought possible.

The rookies are pilots with a wide range of aptitude, experience, and motives, from 20,000-hour airline pilots to weekend warriors with fairly new licenses. After the initial mass briefing, they split up into their classes to get down to specifics. The Sport class retires to a classroom with Rick Vandam and C. J. Stephens, two senior check pilots.

Stephens and Vandam outline the pilot’s responsibilities. The first is to take the safety of others into account—winning the race remains secondary to managing risk. Make the briefings on time or you’ll be locked out. Observe strict radio discipline. Keep attention open for situational awareness—what Stephens calls heads-up flying. Be predictable. Keep your fellow racers in sight and stay within theirs.

After the first classroom session, rookies get an impromptu cautionary tale from auto parts manager Scott Alair, a racer back for his second seminar, who asserts, “They’re really serious about the low flying. Last year I got put on probation.”

Come afternoon, it’s time to fly. Stephens is in a Glasair III, a single-engine composite type that is a frequent competitor in the Sport class. Three pilots assigned to him will train as a team.

Michael Lloyd, who gets the number-two slot, flying off Stephens’ wing, is an investment banker and an ex-military pilot from the San Francisco Bay area. When he hired Stephens to help him ferry a newly acquired Glasair III home, Stephens pointed out that the airplane was fast enough to compete in the Sport class.

Rod Von Grote is attempting the impossible task of replacing Darryl Greenamyer, who is stepping down after dominating the Sport class with the same ease he dominated the Unlimited class in the 1960s. (Greenamyer still has the highest number of wins in the Unlimiteds: seven golds.) Von Grote will fly Greenamyer’s airplane, a highly modified Lancair Super Legacy. Andy Chiavetta, the genius behind the modifications and the man Greenamyer describes as “the son I never had,” can, in real time, look at a computer-synthesized display of the Lancair’s cockpit and operate as flight engineer via radio, freeing Von Grote to find the pylons and avoid traffic.

Rounding out the flight is Tara Zaccagnino, a New Jersey instructor in corporate jets who has the least experience. She is on the end of the formation, where she’ll have room to operate, and any mistakes she makes won’t ripple through the flight. Senior check pilot and Sport class instructor Rick Vandam will join her in the cockpit.

Stephens takes his flight to the northwest of Reno-Stead Field to fly up and down a long valley, where the three rookies practice separating from and rejoining the formation. Lloyd’s blue and silver Glasair slides predictably in and out of formation like a pendulum, the pilot executing the breaks and rejoins with a graceful and reassuring reliability. Von Grote, an airline pilot, has a tendency to overshoot his arrival as he gets used to the power response of his new propeller-driven environment. Zaccagnino, flying on the whiplash end of the formation, has her hands full anticipating the power required when the lead airplane begins a turn, and the drag needed to keep from overtaking the others when she arrives in formation. Midway through the session, a mechanical malfunction causes her to take the aircraft back to Stead Field.

Stephens calls for the two remaining members to fall into trail formation for the entry to the course. He takes the flight down to 200 feet and cruises one lap around the 8.48-mile Unlimited course before turning onto the smaller Sport course. The reason for this simple orientation flight is obvious once you’re up there: If you don’t know exactly where to look, the brown telephone-pole pylons with the orange and white barrels at the top are nearly impossible to see against the mottled brown desert, even from 200 feet. A good racing pilot is projecting his line around the next pylon from the one he is about to pass, so a clear understanding of where the pylons actually are is vital.

After four laps in loose trail to establish the course, Stephens leads the two rookies to the “cool down,” a circular track at 3,000 feet where an engine can unwind from race power and a pilot’s consciousness can recover from the blur of the desert in preparation for landing.

Soon the rookies are rolling down Runway 26, transitioning from the “hot” side, near the interior of the course, to the “cold” side, where they can slow for turnoff and not be a hazard to a following racer who may have landed fast, or lost his brakes.

On Friday morning, the pilots assemble in the briefing room. Stephens briefs his group of three pilots on the mission profile: a rejoin to formation after takeoff, a practice start, some laps. At some random time, Stephens will call for an engine failure, and that pilot must pull the power back to idle and find a runway.

On this flight they are taking the course at 150 feet. After one lap, Stephens climbs to observe from above. When he calls for the simulated engine-out, Lloyd climbs to an altitude from which he can S-turn over to runway 14, making his emergency landing approach easily.

Von Grote isn’t as lucky. His approach ends up a bit short of runway 14. Had this been a real emergency, he probably would have walked away, but the airplane would likely have slid into the desert.

Now Stephens has each racer pull out of formation and roll the airplane inverted, hang in the harness a beat, then roll right side up. This exercise introduces the pilots to the wake turbulence effects they would experience if they tangled with the vortices streaming off the wingtips of the airplanes in front of them.

After lunch, Stephens takes the class out for passing practice. For this session the group is joined by Vince Walker, a FedEx DC-10 pilot from Colorado who has pressed his Extra 300L into service as a trainer because the Lancair he is building is not ready to fly. The Extra is designed for maneuvering, not speed; Walker will strain to keep up with the flight.

Once the rookies are spread out, Stephens pulls the power back and eases out a few degrees of flap to slow to 150 mph, which allows Lloyd to attempt a pass.

Lloyd slowly approaches Stephens’ right wing. Stephens holds the lead Glasair in a smooth line, and eventually Lloyd’s Glasair disappears under the trailing edge of the right wing. Now Lloyd’s aircraft is close to the instructor, but not visible to him. Five or six seconds later, the nose of Lloyd’s airplane should have slid out from under the leading edge of the right wing, but it has not appeared. Tension rises in the cockpit of Stephens’ aircraft: There is a racer close but out of sight and behaving unpredictably.

Stephens thinks he knows what happened. After several seconds, he rolls the Glasair into a steep bank at the apex of a pylon turn. Sure enough, Lloyd has crossed under and in front of Stephens and is focused on his path, having assumed Stephens’ airplane is no longer a factor. It’s not, of course, unless Lloyd has an emergency and pops up off the course without thinking, but a pilot in Stephens’ position would have no idea where Lloyd’s airplane was after it disappeared under the right wing. It’s an honest mistake of aggression.

Von Grote pushes up the power on the Super Legacy, announces he is starting to overtake on the right, and flies smoothly past Stephens, establishing a several-airplane-length margin before sliding into the line and claiming the lead.

Stephens cuts across the course to settle in front of Walker’s Extra. Walker gives the Extra full throttle and slowly crawls into close formation behind Stephens’ airplane. But the Extra just doesn’t have the requisite five knots to overtake the Glasair. After a lap and a half of close trail, Stephens abandons the exercise. He calls the class off the course to cool down.

David Sterling, an airline pilot who built his own Lancair and implausibly claims he came to Reno because he has 20,000 hours and has never done anything exciting in an airplane, is about to join up with a different formation of three. He’s well away from the field when he hears a call on the radio for his race number to execute the engine-out procedure. Sterling fails to realize that the call is for Jet class racers currently on the course. He dives toward the airport with the throttle back, executing an approach in the path of a flight of L-39 jets. It’s an embarrassing miscue that will take some living down, but everyone gets a lesson in maintaining the bigger picture.

Another infraction was strike two for Scott Alair. Despite repeated warnings from instructors, Alair elected to take his airplane down too low on the course and—for the second time in as many years—has been sent home on probation. It’s safer, Alair claims, if he gets the airplane down below the tops of the pylons, because he has motocross race experience and the view down low enables him to transfer that experience to air racing. When asked if he would want a pilot he followed at arm’s length to pull the same stunt on him, Alair reflects for a moment and decides no, because that pilot, 31,000-hour veteran Ernie Sutter, is, in Alair’s judgment, “not as good a pilot as I am.”

On the last day of the seminar, each aircraft class is given an extended single session on the course. As many pilots as care to can fly in a simulated race. The combined Sport class flights make an impressive gaggle of 10 as they come down the start. Stephens casts a watchful eye on the rookies from the ramp.

After 10 laps—more than the number in a real race—Lloyd finds himself in a tight formation of racers when keeping track of everything overwhelms him. Wisely, Lloyd elects to pull up and enter the cool-down area.

After a few laps, he’s sufficiently recovered the proper frame of mind and makes a diving reentry at the home pylon. The decision to pull out rather than continue in what was becoming, for him, at his level, an overwhelming experience is the critical mark of self-awareness—exactly what the instructors hope for.

Two months later, the graduates show up at Reno for the 2006 National Championship Air Races. Michael Lloyd arrives with the Glasair III in perfect condition, sporting race number 21 on the side and “Miss Conduct” on the cowling. He has enlisted a support crew and is keeping the dangers and rewards of air racing in perspective. On Wednesday of race week, Lloyd becomes the first rookie of the class of 2006 to race at Reno, taking third place in Heat 1-C at an average of 261.712 mph. He can now add “race pilot” to his aeronautical résumé.

Vince Walker has barely finished his homebuilt Lancair Legacy in time. The airframe is still in epoxy primer. Self-sufficient to a fault, he works alone, preparing the airframe for racing when he should be focused on preparing himself. As race day approaches he’s still making significant adjustments. Finally, members of Andy Chiavetta’s crew give him a hand finishing the preparations.

Heat 1-B takes place under overcast skies on a blustery Thursday morning. This race has the largest number of rookies, including Walker and David Sterling, who says he’s prepared for what is about to unfold: “Without PRS, I’d be a hazard to navigation” on the course.

The Lancair IV pace airplane, flown by Lancair factory pilot Timothy Ong and carrying pace pilot Rick Vandam, launches down runway 26, cuts to the north, and begins the turn to allow the racers to join up. First in is Craig Sherman in Race 19, a turbocharged Glasair. Sport class president Mike Jones slips his Glasair smoothly into the number-two position. Suddenly a white and orange blur slides under the gathering flight, racks into a steep bank on arrival in formation to kill the excessive overtake speed, and parks in the number-four spot. It’s an unnecessarily flamboyant arrival for Scott Alair, in Race 77. He passed his re-certification check ride just in time to enter the competition.

Eventually the remaining racers assemble in a long string off Vandam’s right wing and are headed behind Peavine Mountain for entry onto the course. Amid the turbulence, the racers are managing a stable separation. As speed increases on the final run down the chute, Heat 1-B forms a single line abreast. Just short of the approach end of runway 26, Ong tells them they have a race and pulls the Lancair IV up abruptly so he and Vandam can evaluate the critical run from the start to the number-two pylon. It looks clean.

Eight minutes later, after Craig Sherman flies inside, instead of outside, a pylon, Mike Jones wins. Ernie Sutter edges out Vince Walker by 0.4 mph, with both of them a fraction short of 290. In his first race, David Sterling takes last place.

Rod Von Grote takes off in the gold race for Sport class. On an early lap, he radios to his crew that he thinks John Parker, in his Thunder Mustang, has cut a pylon. Darryl Greenamyer advises Von Grote to ease in behind Parker and stay there. Von Grote blisters past the home pylon behind Parker but ends up winning—when Parker is disqualified—by doing just what C.J. Stephens advised back in July: Keep your head up and know what is going on elsewhere on the course.

There are no more rookies now, only race pilots.

Three fatalities incurred during race week 2007 would cause some to wonder if there is any foolproof way to make air racing safer. The PRS at least sets high standards and puts on notice pilots who don’t meet them. Before the 2006 races are finished, Scott Alair will make one mistake too many. Coming off the race start, he cuts under and across the four aircraft to his left, attempting to gain a minor tactical advantage, which causes Ernie Sutter to take evasive action. The executive committee determines that Alair is a hazard and permanently bans him from racing at Reno in any class.

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