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)
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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.

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