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One of Reno’s most coveted prizes is a pit pass, which allows the audience to get up close and personal with the musclebound Unlimiteds. (Caroline Sheen)

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.

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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.”

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.

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