Shelton: “We need some repairs to this thing. Do you know anybody who could do it?”
Hickle: “Basically, that’s what I do for a living.”
He went to work on the airplane, first doing structural analysis, later as crew chief. Now 69 and white-haired, running an aircraft service and repair business, Hickle still volunteers to work on the Bear even when it means making paying customers wait. “I haven’t seen every flight in between,” he says, “but I’m the only one that I know of who’s seen the first flight and the last flight. I’ve been 40 years on the Rare Bear, and I’ll not get involved with another airplane. This is the one that’s got my attention. It’s like my only child.”
The Bearcat was painstakingly reconstructed with a donated R-3350 engine of unknown provenance shoehorned into the cowling. Nine months after he had trucked the wreck to Compton, Shelton flew the airplane to Reno for the 1969 races. Hickle remembers people looking at the big engine, shaking their heads, and muttering, “You stupid suckers.” Nobody in air racing had tried such a radical conversion before, and the Wright radial was still dogged by a reputation for setting B-29s on fire during World War II. Sure enough, the first engine blew up. In 1970, another 3350 of uncertain vintage also went kerplooey.
For the 1971 race, Shelton got an engine customized by Mel Gregoire, who had been servicing Wright radials since 1950. Gregoire worked for Aircraft Cylinder & Turbine in Sun Valley, California, and company owner George Byard donated the engine to Shelton. “I don’t know if there’s anybody alive who’s worked on those engines longer than I have,” says Gregoire, who is, at 91, still Cornell’s guy for engine advice. Gregoire knew that during the 1950s and ’60s, ultra-rugged versions of the 3350 had been developed for airline and military use. The engines were too big and heavy for air racing, but their pieces were stout enough to withstand extreme stress, so Gregoire mixed and matched components to create a one-of-a-kind monster. From a Lockheed L-1649 Starliner, he took a nose case designed for a slow-turning prop and mated it to the so-called power section—crankcase, crank, pistons, and cylinders—lifted from a Douglas DC-7 (which also provided the Bear’s engine cowling).
Shelton and the hot-rodded Bear won their first race at Cape May in 1971, then, beginning in 1973, finished first three times running at Reno (though he was disqualified in 1974 for not pulling up during a caution). But boom was followed by bust. After a blown oil line, then a gear-up landing at Mojave in 1976, there was not enough money to repair the airplane, so the Bear sat forlornly at Van Nuys Airport, without an engine or obvious prospects.
One of the witnesses of that spectacular gear-up landing was Dave Cornell, attending his first air race. A self-taught engineer who created special effects for the movie industry, Cornell saw the airplane again a few years later while he was taxiing at Van Nuys Airport during a flying lesson. He volunteered to help get the Bear back in the air, and he apprenticed with several of the aging wizards of air racing. But even pumped with plenty of nitrous oxide and a witch’s brew of nitromethane, Rare Bear couldn’t keep up with newer, more sophisticated warbirds. “It dawned on me that if we were going to get in the hunt, we needed a much more powerful supercharger,” Cornell says.
He snagged a blower from a Lockheed EC-121. The supercharger had been designed for direct-head fuel injection, a technology that wouldn’t fit inside the Bear, so Cornell re-engineered the supercharger to work with the existing pressure carburetion system. Normal rated power of a stock 3350 was 2,800 horsepower at 2,600 rpm and 45 inches of manifold pressure. With Cornell’s mods, the engine made 4,000 ponies at 3,200 rpm and 80 inches of manifold pressure—4,500 horsepower with a shot of nitrous. With that engine and a slicked-up airframe, Shelton kicked holy butt, demolishing the three-kilometer speed record and dominating at Reno from 1988 through 1991.
In fact, it was the 1991 Gold race that best showcased the formidable partnership of man and machine. As soon as he heard the traditional call—“Gentlemen, you have a race!”—Shelton hammered down the chute and led the field around the first pylon. Riding his tail were Bill “Tiger” Destefani in the P-51 Strega and Skip Holm in Tsunami, the great coulda-shoulda-woulda scratch-built racer that never caught a break. Destefani and Holm dogged Shelton for 73 miles, but the Bear ran like a scalded ’cat, maintaining a winning gap the entire race. “That was the best race I’ve ever seen,” says Pete Law, a longtime Lockheed Skunk Works thermodynamicist who has provided engineering support for virtually every Unlimited winner at Reno since 1966. “It was the race of all races.” Lyle Shelton never won another Gold.
Chris Langham and Keith Geary are perched on ladders as they remove the Bear’s propeller. Unlike most other jobs on the Bearcat, this is relatively simple, requiring no special tools or expertise. But the propeller itself is a rare Douglas A-1 Skyraider unit featuring the latest hub with the earliest blades—so slender they’re referred to as toothpicks. “We treat it like an egg,” says Langham.