Air Racing 101

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

A trio of Sport class racers skim the high desert. (Jan Peters)
Air & Space Magazine

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.

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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.”

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