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)
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For the first time at Reno, blowing an engine won’t be a problem. An L-39 will be race-ready the moment it hits Stead Field, and it will be able to run all day with hardly a burp. “It’s so much more reliable and easy to fly,” says Leeward. “You’re never operating out of the envelope and you’re not waiting for technical problems or an engine to quit. And the cost is affordable.”

“L-39s are responsive and a little underpowered.” says Dilda, a DC-10 captain for Federal Express. Because coming around the pylons bleeds off airspeed and the Albatros has no afterburner, there’s no way to accelerate quickly, and that, Dilda says, “will make it a real pilot’s race.”

Holm agrees. Although Unlimited pilots like him and Leeward have more experience flying the course at high speeds than T-6 and Sport class vets like Dilda and Behel, the 400-odd-mph lap speeds won’t be as high as that of the fastest Unlimiteds. “If we were flying 100 mph faster, I’d have a real advantage,” he says, “but at that speed the people flying ’em will figure it out real quick.” With equally matched airplanes in the hands of skilled pilots, Reno wants a close race of bunched racers duking it out at high speeds.

But are L-39s the future of air racing? Even some of the jet class racers themselves wonder whether the very elements that make the L-39 such an acceptable race airplane will make the event more show and less edge-of-your-seat race. After all, part of the thrill of Unlimited racing is the knowledge that a Strega or Dago Red is a rare, million-dollar beast flying at the very edge of stability, and that at any moment the finely tuned pistons hammering at pressures unimagined by the original designers might explode in catastrophic failure. Is flying a quiet, pressurized, reliable, air-conditioned airplane exciting enough to satiate a crowd that lives for fire and noise and engine builders with the skill of magicians?

“A Gold racer is like pure adrenaline,” confesses Holm, “and an L-39 is nothing like a Gold racer. It’s the difference between a VW and a Ferrari Testarossa. That extra 100 mph and 80 inches of manifold pressure is what makes ’em come to life. If you can’t run an Unlimited Gold racer, then Reno loses its appeal for me.”

But some hope that ultimately, the tame L-39s will be superseded by a wilder generation of jets. To match the heady romance of noise and heat and danger with jets would require an Unlimited jet race, with pilots flying on the edge whatever they brought to the course. It’s a compelling proposition, and one that everyone knows would recapture the glory days of cutting-edge air racing. That remains a dream to many who prowl the pits of the air races, a dream that will move one step closer to realization if the first jet races come off without incident. “It’s a possibility,” says Houghton. “It might work,” says Vandam, “but first we’ll have to prove we can come out and fly jets safely.” Whoa, says the FAA’s Clarence Bohartz. “I’ve already got my neck stuck out! That’s way down the road, and for that you’d need a race course that takes up half the U.S.!” Reno, at any rate, seems ready to push the envelope.

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