Notes from the Reno Races

Dispatches from the 2007 National Championship Air Races.

Rare Bear takes off for the Saturday Gold race. On Sunday, pilot John Penney finished first in the Unlimited class. (Larry Lowe)
Air & Space Magazine

Air & Space contributor Larry Lowe reports from the Reno National Championship Air Races and Airshow, which runs from September 12-16.

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Sunday afternoon: A day at the races

After the intensity of the week, two days of air racing is just what the doctor ordered—and just what the fans got on Saturday and Sunday. Following the morning events and the opening ceremonies, the Reno, and the natural amphitheater here highlights the grace of their performance. The team’s nine aircraft paid tribute to the fallen racers, adding one figure as a memorial to one of their own team members lost earlier this year. The small CT-114 Tutor trainers flown by the Canadians may not have the sleekness of the Thunderbirds’ F-16s or the Blue Angels’ F-18s, but the Snowbirds more than make up for it with the elegance of their performance.

Details of this week’s accidents have begun to emerge from the fog of speculation. The biplane that crashed on Tuesday night had had a number of modifications and had never flown in the configuration it flew on Tuesday. Another biplane racer told me he believed that overeagerness to participate in the races was a factor in the accident. Taking off uphill on Runway 8, the engine, which had not appeared to be performing well on the ground, failed shortly after liftoff. There’s a small bluff off the end of the runway that precluded a straight ahead roll out. While attempting to turn to find a place to land, the airplane stalled at low altitude.

An unlimited pilot who witnessed Brad Morehouse’s accident on Thursday said that in the grip of the wake turbulence, the L-39 Albatros rolled twice, but that Morehouse regained control of the airplane prior to impact. Right side up, aileron against the roll, he was within 10 feet or so of pulling the jet out of the descent when he hit the ground.

The two formula pilots were heading uphill into the early morning sun. Overtaking pilot Jason Somes had passed wide as the pair Gary Hubler’s airplane, still on the inside of the turn, accelerated—as formula ones are prone to do when the airspeed gets high enough where the high-pitch racing prop can begin to let the engine develop higher RPM. As both planes converged on the pylon, neither could see the other, and by sheer chance the two intersected the same point at the same time. “You could try to do that with a couple of airplanes 100 times and not get it right,” a pilot who saw the event told me. The two racers converged, and Hubler’s airplane shredded the aft end of Somes’.

Jason Somes suffered substantial injuries, and at first it seemed as if he might lose the use of one eye. Successful surgery on his face and eye saved his sight. Somes participated in the Sunday opening ceremonies, standing next to Reno Air Race Association CEO Mike Houghton, media director Valerie Enos, and Formula One air racing legend Ray Cote.

“We are fortunate to have the very best, most skilled pilots in the world compete and perform in northern Nevada each year,” Houghton said. “The entire sport mourns the loss of three fierce competitors, and we all mourn the loss of three dear friends.”
By Sunday it was clear that fears expressed during the stand-down that the accidents might mean the end of air racing at Reno were likely overblown. Although each accident will be reviewed to see if procedures can be improved, racing is almost certainly going to continue at Reno.

Chris Ferguson won the 2007 Biplane Gold championship Sunday morning in his Pitts LR-1, “Miss Gianna,” at a speed of 233.470 miles per hour. The sophisticated “Phantom,” which has been having engine problems all week, pulled out after one lap. Following on Ferguson’s heels were Norman Way at 208.975 in “Magic” and Dennis Vest in “Drag Racer” at 200.924 mph. Rookie Pat McGarry was all smiles in fourth place in a cleaned-up S1S Pitts Special called “Rollin’.”
David Hoover took first place in the 2007 Formula One Gold Race at 245.669 in his Arnold AR-6 “Endeavor,” followed by George Andre at 238.399 in the Cassutt “Zipper” and Scotty Crandlemire in the Cassutt III “Outrageous” at 237.997.

In Sport Class, the highly anticipated contest between Andy Chiavetta’s Super Legacy and the NXT racers flown by Jon Sharp and Kevin Eldridge didn’t materialize. The NXT Super Sport raceplanes are wicked fast, the pair posting qualifying times of 378 and 380 miles per hour, speedy enough to beat 16 of the airplanes in the Unlimited field. Chiavetta’s airplane had a reputed 900-horsepower engine built by Greg Stephenson. But a series of gearbox and prop problems kept the four-time Sport Class champion out of today’s race. “I just don’t think we are running well enough to put Rod [Von Grote, the pilot] in the airplane,” said a clearly disappointed Chiavetta.

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