The Bear Is Back

The winning-est Bearcat in air racing steps up once more to the starting gate.

Like a runner waiting for the starting gun, the famous Grumman F8F-2 (without wingtips) looks ready. (Tyson V. Rininger)
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Langham, 42, volunteers when he’s not working as a mechanic for a shipping company. He gravitated to the airplane five years ago because it was so different from everything else he had worked on. “The longerons are spot-welded,” he says. “We don’t do that anymore. The elevator and rudder are made out of fabric. We have to search for months to find some parts. Worst-case scenario, we fab them ourselves. We make our own hoses. We do our own machining and welding. There are times when we work 20-hour days for seven or eight days. But like John Penney says: ‘She’s a seductive bitch.’ No matter what she does to you, you keep coming back.”

Hickle estimates that over the years, about 130 people have worked on Rare Bear. All but a handful have been volunteers, and about 90 percent of them have been airplane mechanics. At times, when  sponsorship was paying the bills, as many as 30 people supported the Bear at Reno. This year, the crew will probably be a third that. And already, preparations are running behind schedule. Not because there isn’t enough manpower but because Cornell hasn’t been able to locate a small but essential component called a master rod bearing.

The good news is that Penney won’t need much time to get up to speed. He’s already flown the Bear to four Golds, and he’s intimately familiar with the airplane’s idiosyncrasies: the brain-scrambling noise, the Bear’s reduced stability at racing speeds, the effort required to manipulate the stick while arcing around the Reno pylons. “It’s hard, physical work,” he says. “The Bear is a fairly docile, well-mannered, nice-handling airplane in the benign flight regime. But at racing speed, it gets kind of hostile. Every time I climb into it, I treat it as a first flight in terms of how focused I am and how much attention I pay to every little detail.”

Rare Bear’s principal competition at Reno promises to be last year’s winner, Strega; this year the P-51 will be raced for the first time by 22-year-old Steve Hinton Jr. Next in the pecking order is the Sanders brothers’ Dreadnought, a Sea Fury that has won two Golds at Reno. For gamblers looking for a dark horse, there’s Czech Mate, a Yak-11. Six-time winner Dago Red won’t be racing this year. Ditto for 2006 champ September Fury. So the airplane to beat looks to be Race 77, as the Bear is known in Reno parlance.

“It’ll be Number One, no question,” says Pete Law. “With Dave Cornell back on board, it should be head and shoulders above anything that’s ever raced at Reno.”

The team’s goal for 2009 is Gold number 11. “We want to win soundly,” says Redick. Next, the three-kilometer record beckons; Cornell thinks 550 mph is a plausible number. And after that? “Everybody involved in this airplane, from the race team to the crew chief to the pilot to the owner, is doing it for the love of it,” says Rod Lewis. “So my goal is to continue to do it as long as it’s fun.”

Sounds like the Bear could be in business for another 40 years. 

Preston Lerner wrote about U.S. Navy E-2 Hawkeyes in the June/July 2008 issue.

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