Over the last 17 years, nearly 400 historic and beautifully restored aircraft have competed for recognition at the National Aviation Heritage Invitational, an event that has become a fixture at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Each year, a couple dozen airworthy vintage aircraft—civilian and military—were positioned on the ramp at Reno-Stead airport, where judges evaluated the quality and accuracy of the restorations and airplane fans strolled among the competitors and voted for their favorites. (Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine participated by providing and counting the ballots for the People’s Choice Trophy.)
Not this year. The Heritage trophy event has recently announced that it will suspend its 2016 competition, because it “has outgrown the ramp space and resources allocated to it by the Reno Air Races,” according to Executive Director Ken Perich. The NAHI group also announced that it’s preparing for its 2017 event.
That the group is starting to work toward 2017 is good news both for those who have been lucky enough to see the collection of competitors in the past and for those who may now have the chance to see them at Reno—or somewhere else—in the future. A number of things set this competition apart from others. First, the airplane owners or restorers are almost always standing by their airplanes and happy to talk about their treasures’ histories and restorations with the curious. Second, the stories they tell about the airplanes are not only fun to hear but are instructive about the history of aviation as a whole. Because of the range of aircraft represented and the chattiness of the people who bring them, you cannot come away from a Heritage Invitational without learning something about aviation that you didn’t know before. Third, one of the founders of the Heritage event is the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and that organization has arranged for some of its most illustrious honorees to present the awards on Trophy Day. Neil Armstrong, who in his later years didn’t honor many requests to participate in public events, was a frequent Heritage trophy presenter because he loved airplanes. Other presenters have included test pilot and airshow great Bob Hoover, P-51 ace Bud Anderson, record breaker Dick Rutan, space shuttle commander and Reno Race Champion Hoot Gibson, and Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher.
The other thing that sets this awards program apart: The people get to vote.
To give you an idea of what you might expect at the 2017 competition, we’ve rounded up some of the past winners of the National Aviation Heritage Invitational trophies in various award categories, grand champion, and people’s choice. Thanks to photographer Roger Cain for making his portraits of the winners available in the gallery at top.