Reno Enters the Jet Age

They’re not as fast as the top Unlimiteds, but the national air racing organization is gambling on jets to boost attendance.

One of Reno’s most coveted prizes is a pit pass, which allows the audience to get up close and personal with the musclebound Unlimiteds. (Caroline Sheen)
Air & Space Magazine

"LOOK," SAYS DON KIRLIN, OPENING THE forward avionics compartment of an Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros that not long ago prowled the skies over the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. The narrow space in the jet’s nose once held 700 pounds of avionics but now is empty. “We took an area that was used for targeting weapons and you can now haul two sets of golf clubs!” crows Kirlin, the United States’ largest importer of L-39s. “And,” he says, like a born salesman, “you could put it right down on the fairway!”

This former Eastern Bloc trainer and attack jet is not being prepped for a day on the links. It’s about to star in pylon air racing. In September seven L-39s will compete in the first jet-class race at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. It is the latest in a series of moves to keep the world’s fastest motorsport from going the way of the drive-in movie. The sheer improbability of Kirlin’s sales pitch speaks volumes about how much times have changed and the long-maligned way the former Soviet bloc designed and built airplanes.

When Roscoe Turner and Jimmy Doolittle cranked around the pylons in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they did so in cutting-edge technology. Their machines were among the fastest in the air, including the military’s. When 100,000 fans crowded the National Air Races at Cleveland in 1929, they were treated to the best pilots flying the world’s hottest aircraft, and Doolittle and Turner became household names. In recent years, however, Reno has become a mere vestige of that era, a showcase of arguably irrelevant technology. The marquee event, the Unlimited class, features World War II airplanes that haven’t seen active service in the lifetimes of anyone born after 1950 and whose speeds haven’t increased in two decades. A Bearcat or Mustang may bring tears to the eyes of a man or woman of a certain age, but for legions of people born after World War II, it’s just another antique. The race is won year after year by the same handful of airplanes that are 100 mph faster than most of their competitors. And consider the sheer expense: a million or more for a Mustang or Bearcat, $200,000 for an engine that might not last the first lap, thousands more for fuel and parts. “The Unlimiteds are just so expensive and the engine builders are getting scarcer,” says longtime Unlimited racer Jimmy Leeward. “You can only afford to run a Dago Red or Rare Bear once a year,” says Skip Holm, 2000’s Gold Unlimited winner. “If you break ’em, it takes a year just to fix ’em. If NASCAR had only one race a year, it wouldn’t have many fans. It’s amazing that Reno can get anyone at all to come!”

For a while it almost couldn’t. “Racing alone wasn’t paying the bills, and four years ago we were as close to shutting down as is possible,” says Michael Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association. In debt and faced with declining attendance, the races had to make a decision: It was adapt or die, says Houghton, “and we made a commitment to turn it around. We’re in show business, and we have to put on an entertaining event for the broadest number of people. We talked to our crowd and they told us they wanted to see some new things take place.”

First, Reno beefed up the airshow portion of the event, increasing its static displays and adding flying performances between every race. In 1998 it introduced the Sport class (see “Back in the Race,” Aug./Sept. 2000). The class was open to production model kit-built aircraft, one of the fastest growing segments of general aviation, and it was hoped that a NASCAR-like battle between factory-sponsored teams would develop as racers flew airplanes that John Doe in the stands could afford to own and fly.

Reno was getting exciting again. From a low of 120,000 spectators in the mid-1990s, attendance rose 60 percent in 2000 to 189,000. Still, there remained one type of aircraft conspicuously absent from the course: jet warbirds. Reno might be the last great piston show, “but if we’re going to keep racing we have to increase the appeal of the venue, and kids identify with jets, not Mustangs,” says Rick Vandam, Reno’s air boss and director of operations. The race organizers wondered if recapturing Reno’s former glory would require racing a new class of aircraft.

At the 2000 races the word went out to the crowd: After the climactic Gold Unlimited race on Sunday afternoon, there’d be an exhibition jet race. Would the crowd stick around to watch?

Late on Sunday, three MiG-17s (one flown by Leeward), an L-39 flown by Rick Vandam, and a T-33 screamed onto the course. The -17 pilots had been explicitly forbidden by the Federal Aviation Administration to fire the afterburners. But you can’t handicap a good racer. After four laps Leeward was at the back of the pack, and, unable to help himself, he lit the burners. Another -17 pilot did likewise. The sound was deafening as Leeward shot well over 500 mph for the two final laps to win. The crowd in the stands went nuts, hooting and cheering. Even Merlin engine poster boy Skip Holm “found it real exciting,” he admits. Reno had passed out surveys to the crowd and the final word was unanimous. Bring on the jets.

There was only one problem. The kind of free-for-all that made the exhibition race—and the premier Unlimited class—fast and exciting seemed impossible with military jets. The fastest, highly modified Mustangs, Bearcats, and Sea Furies are all closely matched in performance and, barring a technological breakthrough, are hard put to break 500 mph doing laps. But jets come in all shapes and sizes, from straight wing to swept wing, some with afterburner and some without. The speed difference between an Aero Vodochody L-39 and a MiG-15 or F-86 is nearly 300 mph. “We couldn’t figure out a way to make it a fair race,” says Bill Eck, chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association.

Competition issues aside, the FAA gets goosebumps at the idea of civilians operating military jets anywhere, let alone on a nine-mile race course originally designed for lap speeds of 450 mph and surrounded by houses on three sides and 50,000 people on the fourth. The agency is still haunted by what Vandam calls “the Farrell’s ice cream store incident.” In 1972, a civilian-operated F-86 slammed into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor in Sacramento, California, killing 22 people, including 12 children.When Vandam brought up racing jets to the FAA, “they immediately brought up Farrell’s,” he says. Although course modifications allowed speeds of up to 550 mph, says Clarence Bohartz, FAA flight standards and operations inspector at Reno, that still wasn’t fast enough for afterburning, swept-wing jets like MiG-17s and F-86Ds. Indeed, Vandam has flown the course at 570 mph in a MiG-17, and he says, “It’s very difficult to stay within its confines.”

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