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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Von Grote isn’t as lucky. His approach ends up a bit short of runway 14. Had this been a real emergency, he probably would have walked away, but the airplane would likely have slid into the desert.

Now Stephens has each racer pull out of formation and roll the airplane inverted, hang in the harness a beat, then roll right side up. This exercise introduces the pilots to the wake turbulence effects they would experience if they tangled with the vortices streaming off the wingtips of the airplanes in front of them.

After lunch, Stephens takes the class out for passing practice. For this session the group is joined by Vince Walker, a FedEx DC-10 pilot from Colorado who has pressed his Extra 300L into service as a trainer because the Lancair he is building is not ready to fly. The Extra is designed for maneuvering, not speed; Walker will strain to keep up with the flight.

Once the rookies are spread out, Stephens pulls the power back and eases out a few degrees of flap to slow to 150 mph, which allows Lloyd to attempt a pass.

Lloyd slowly approaches Stephens’ right wing. Stephens holds the lead Glasair in a smooth line, and eventually Lloyd’s Glasair disappears under the trailing edge of the right wing. Now Lloyd’s aircraft is close to the instructor, but not visible to him. Five or six seconds later, the nose of Lloyd’s airplane should have slid out from under the leading edge of the right wing, but it has not appeared. Tension rises in the cockpit of Stephens’ aircraft: There is a racer close but out of sight and behaving unpredictably.

Stephens thinks he knows what happened. After several seconds, he rolls the Glasair into a steep bank at the apex of a pylon turn. Sure enough, Lloyd has crossed under and in front of Stephens and is focused on his path, having assumed Stephens’ airplane is no longer a factor. It’s not, of course, unless Lloyd has an emergency and pops up off the course without thinking, but a pilot in Stephens’ position would have no idea where Lloyd’s airplane was after it disappeared under the right wing. It’s an honest mistake of aggression.

Von Grote pushes up the power on the Super Legacy, announces he is starting to overtake on the right, and flies smoothly past Stephens, establishing a several-airplane-length margin before sliding into the line and claiming the lead.

Stephens cuts across the course to settle in front of Walker’s Extra. Walker gives the Extra full throttle and slowly crawls into close formation behind Stephens’ airplane. But the Extra just doesn’t have the requisite five knots to overtake the Glasair. After a lap and a half of close trail, Stephens abandons the exercise. He calls the class off the course to cool down.

David Sterling, an airline pilot who built his own Lancair and implausibly claims he came to Reno because he has 20,000 hours and has never done anything exciting in an airplane, is about to join up with a different formation of three. He’s well away from the field when he hears a call on the radio for his race number to execute the engine-out procedure. Sterling fails to realize that the call is for Jet class racers currently on the course. He dives toward the airport with the throttle back, executing an approach in the path of a flight of L-39 jets. It’s an embarrassing miscue that will take some living down, but everyone gets a lesson in maintaining the bigger picture.

Another infraction was strike two for Scott Alair. Despite repeated warnings from instructors, Alair elected to take his airplane down too low on the course and—for the second time in as many years—has been sent home on probation. It’s safer, Alair claims, if he gets the airplane down below the tops of the pylons, because he has motocross race experience and the view down low enables him to transfer that experience to air racing. When asked if he would want a pilot he followed at arm’s length to pull the same stunt on him, Alair reflects for a moment and decides no, because that pilot, 31,000-hour veteran Ernie Sutter, is, in Alair’s judgment, “not as good a pilot as I am.”

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