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

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Friday, noon: Three accidents in four days

A somber mood. Racing has been suspended for the remainder of today after a mid-air collision in a Formula One race this morning took the life of Gary Hubler of Caldwell, Idaho. Following on the heels of another accident Thursday that killed Brad Morehouse, who was flying an L-39 Albatros jet, race director Mike Houghton decided to call a halt. The unprecedented move will let the presidents of each racing class review the situation with the pilots and make certain "their heads are in the right place" to continue racing, said Houghton.

Hubler’s fatality is the third in four days, and has taken everyone here aback. I’ll have a fuller report once we get more details.

Wednesday evening: The calm before the storm

For the Reno faithful, Wednesday evening is a special time. The qualifying rounds are done, the casual fans have departed, and the sun is slowly working its way toward the western ridge line. A satisfying calm settles in as old friendships are renewed and notes compared. Tomorrow the race begins in earnest as the fastest airplanes in each class take to the course.

For those who aren’t familiar with this gem of an airshow, the Reno National Championship Air Races are a unique experience. They’re part living history, part technological proving ground, and mostly a hell of a lot of fun for those who make a point to be here every year.

Back in the 1930s, air racing was as big a part of the national sports scene as NASCAR is today. But after World War II, a string of fatal crashes caused the sport to nearly disappear. It was reinvented here in the 1960s. The high desert outside Reno seemed like the perfect place; there was plenty of room for propeller-driven World War II fighters to make their turns without asking more of the airplane than it could reliably give. And the ethos of Reno was right. It’s a place where prostitution was legal, gambling an industry, and divorce a matter of two weeks and some paperwork; likewise, pilots came to Reno partly for the waivers that exempt them from normal FAA rules. The low flying and excessive speed pilots enjoy in Reno would get them busted for reckless flying in the real world.

Racing at Reno is old school. Airplanes fly in a cluster around a course defined by phone poles topped by 55-gallon drums, every pilot searching for that elusive edge over his or her opponents. Racing at Reno is less difficult than ordinary airshow flying but arguably more dangerous. That was brought home in a briefing conducted by media manager Valerie Enos, who concludes her pre-race school for reporters with a heartfelt plea for sensitivity in the event a photographer or writer witnesses the end of someone’s racing career. "Remember the pilot flying," she says. "Remember they have a family."

It’s only Wednesday and Reno ‘07 has already underscored her point. Yesterday a biplane pilot from California, Steve Dari, was killed during practice. Word on the ramp was that the condition of the engine was a factor, but that’s the kind of speculation Enos would just as soon not see offered as reporting. Earlier in the week, a Mustang aborted a high-speed takeoff and ran off the end of the runway. The brakes were so hot that the brush caught fire and the flames destroyed the airframe. Today one T-6 taxied into another, and the latter lost its tail surfaces. The simple fact is that Reno can be riskier than most airshows.

This evening, after the airspace waiver expires, a pair of F-16s intended for static display on the grounds show up, booming afterburners. The call of the Unlimited course (for airplanes over 4,500 pounds) proves too strong, and the lead pilot roars down to take a lap around the course, while his wingman flies top cover. Few pilots with a high-performance airplane will turn down the chance to run the pylons at Reno—even if it’s an unofficial lap performed solely for bragging rights.

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