December 1, 1992
It was a great idea for a story, but like the best-laid plans of the story's subjects, it went awry.
I was to join and toil in the pits with an Unlimited-class air- racing team to learn and report on how truly heavy metal is prepped and flown around the pylons at Reno. Having previously crewed with longtime air-race pilot Ralph Twombly and clan on the unlimited P-51 Miss America, I looked forward to honing my skills as a Dzus-fastener operator and oil-rag man.
The National Championship Air Races are aptly titled. Unsuccessful attempts to create an Unlimited racing series have resulted in one-time races here and there, but Reno remains the only annual, national event of its kind. While attendance rivals that of baseball's World Series and generates megabucks for the city and local charities, major media coverage is absent, which means sparse sponsorship and paltry purses. The top prize doesn't usually cover the winner's expenses.
The outfit chosen to receive my skill and guidance was Howard Pardue's Big Iron Racing Team from Breckenridge, Texas. Pardue, who from 1955 spent 12 years as a Marine Corps aviator, flying the Grumman F9F Panther and Cougar, North American FJ Fury, Douglas A4D Skyhawk, and the round-engined AD Skyraider, is now an oil producer and avid warbird collector. He operates the Breckenridge Aviation Museum and is a central performer in the annual Breckenridge Air Show. His collection includes an essentially stock Grumman XF8F Bearcat powered by a later-model Pratt & Whitney R2800 CB-16, 17-cylinder engine, which produces a few hundred extra horses (2,500 total). Also included is a stock-appearing Hawker Sea Fury on which a practiced eye can detect a few of the numerous race modifications. The team brings both aircraft to race at Reno.
Unlimited-class race meetings are divided into three categories according to qualifying speeds. Pardue's Bearcat has a top speed — at Reno's 5,000-foot elevation — of perhaps 400 miles per hour (air racers don't speak knots) and can get around the 9.1-mile circuit in the mid- to upper 300s. This gives it winning potential in the slower Bronze category. The warmed-up Sea Fury has maybe a 70-mph edge and is a contender in the mid-range Silver group. Pardue's simple strategy is to place as high as possible in the two lower categories to maximize prize money for each aircraft, which helps to pay for the outing.
My work schedule precluded my presence during the two days of qualifying and the first day of heat races on Thursday, and I arrived Friday morning to find a fine plan — and story — gone sour.
Both the Bearcat and the Sea Fury had qualified well, the latter at 406 mph, running very conservative manifold pressure and rpm. In the first Bronze heat race, Pardue placed well in the F8F. Next, he climbed into the Sea Fury and started in the Silver heat. After five laps running at speeds around 410 mph, Pardue heard and felt some misfiring. Coming back on the power, he still managed a third-place finish after no less than three P-51s and a near-identical Sea Fury pulled up and out early with problems.
Once back in the Big Iron pit, the oil screens were pulled and checked to reveal evidence of a melted piston. The Sea Fury was all done for 1992. My arrival 16 hours later found her standing — in a beautiful, new British naval paint scheme — over a large galvanized tray full of oil drained from the huge Y-shaped oil return line, which had been removed for flushing. It looked like a great beast, standing proud, mortally wounded, its aorta ripped out.
The drama in racing goes far beyond the finish line, and I could read the disappointment on each face as I met the crew. There was not a lot of eye contact. I didn't take it personally.
Crew Chief Nelson Ezell took me on a walkaround of the Sea Fury, pointing out the various modifications. Easiest to spot was the four- bladed propeller. Originally, the Hawker had a five-bladed airscrew mated to a Bristol-Siddley Centaur twin-row radial with sleeve valves, a fine engine for which there exists little in the way of parts or rebuild support. It was lifted in favor of a Wright R-3350 and prop from an AD Skyraider, an installation that Ezell modestly characterizes as a near bolt-in. In fact, he has taken advantage of the Wright's cooler running nature to fabricate some beautiful drag-reducing items such as an enlarged spinner, which cuts the circular air inlet down to about a 2-inch slit, and fairing-in the area around the exhaust-augmented air outlets. There are no cowl flaps and just a single, relatively small high-pressure oil cooler. The essentially stock engine makes 2,700 horsepower at 2,900 rpm with ADI (anti-detonate injection). But for serious Sunday-afternoon running, using 160-octane racing fuel, it probably tops 3,000 hp at 3,000 rpm and 60-plus inches of manifold pressure.
Beyond those modifications, there are numerous unnamed aerodynamic tweaks and the removal of about 1,000 pounds of extraneous military- related hydraulics and other gear, which improves access to the remaining essentials.
Big Iron's remaining entry, the stock Bearcat, sat in gleaming Marine Corps dress, just waiting for the next race, a stuffed gorilla in the cockpit. There was no work for me here. It was time to move out into the pits for a broader view.
The pilots and crews in all classes — Sport Biplane, Formula One, T-6, and Unlimited — are here to race each other, but there's also a strong sense of camaraderie. Despite efforts to elevate it to a big-bucks, nationally televised sporting extravaganza on the order of an Indy 500, Reno began and has remained a sportsman's event. (That's good for the spectators, who can still buy passes enabling them to stroll freely through the pits, even during the races. Try doing that at Indy.) It's one week in September when crop dusters, corporate and airline pilots, wealthy developers and business people, and their largely volunteer crews gather in the thin air at Reno/Stead Airport to do the outrageous in airplanes. United under a common bond, they freely lend expertise and expensive parts back and forth as needed to put the fleet in the air at showtime. Included in the exchange is humor, snide challenges, and clever fables, the best of which are not for publication. News — often bicycle-born — flashes through the pits.
Item: It was puzzling that a Pratt & Whitney 3350 should melt a piston at a conservative 57 inches of manifold pressure, which it should have tolerated even without ADI. (The turbo-compound version of this engine — with which I'm quite familiar — makes rated power at 59 inches of manifold pressure without ADI.) More puzzling — as I made my way around the pits — was the fact that the 3350-powered Rare Bear had melted pistons at 58 inches, and another Wright-powered Sea Fury, Cottonmouth, had melted a piston at 54 inches on the same lap as Pardue.
Pistons are melted by a phenomenon called detonation. It is the violent, most- aggravated form of preignition, or "ping," where the fuel/air mixture explodes rather than burns, sending combustion temperatures out of sight. Detonation can occur with severe overheating, excessive manifold pressure, insufficient octane rating, or a combination thereof. With seemingly all but the last cause eliminated, many eyes turned to the fuel truck.
Each year, a large petroleum refiner blends several thousand gallons of an otherwise unavailable commodity: 115/145-octane avgas. It does it just for the Reno Air Races, a labor of love for this motorsport classic. It receives precious little promotion beyond the name on the truck. This year, 8,000 gallons were prepared and shipped with a test sheet showing the fuel to exceed the specification. Controversy was struck when the new fuel was blended with the remains of last year's stock (which had supposedly tested okay). Many racers nonetheless felt that somehow the fuel had become contaminated. A sample was flown out to be analyzed, and when preliminary results (which did not include a time-consuming octane check) showed the fuel to be apparently within specifications, some teams sent samples to be independently checked. Opinion was about evenly divided between those who found the fuel suspect and those who pronounced it to be fit. After the engine failures early in the week, no one used it, however. Those who could get it used special-ordered 160-octane racing fuel usually reserved for Sunday's main events. The rest settled for 100/130.
While that controversy continued (and it won't be resolved for weeks or months, maybe never), other teams struggled, often far into the night, with other problems.
On Friday, Matt Jackson, flying the famous P-51 Stiletto, had a total power failure on the back side of the course, which set him up on a red-hot base leg for Runway 8. He was understandably unprepared for the great gliding characteristics of a super-streamlined Mustang with a stopped prop. Nonetheless, with superb airmanship, he wheeled it on, downwind, at a groundspeed well over 200 knots, rolling with smoking tires and brakes some 6,000 feet to the end, where he ground looped, losing only a wheel and tire. He was racing the next day.
Stiletto was resurrected from Santa Monica's Museum of Flying and leased by Jackson. It's unique in having no belly scoop; rather, the water/glycol radiator is mounted aft of the firewall and immersed in a tank containing a fifty-fifty mix of water and methanol (ADI fluid). The radiator gives up heat to the water/alcohol far more efficiently than to air, boiling off the constantly replenished fluid through steam vents.
Crewmember/sponsor Tom Dodson explained the reason for the power interruption: "The lever arm on the prop governor broke. The pitch then increased all the way to feather."
With rpm greatly reduced, the full-flowing ADI put out the fire altogether.
In the Pond Racer pit, the drama was evident mainly by the near- constant lack of cowlings on the aircraft. Owner and sponsor Bob Pond and Crew Chief Jim (J. D.) Dale briefed me on the remaining developmental problems and the steady progress that's been made on this complex, revolutionary, twin-engined racer. Pond pointed out a nagging power problem: the inability to achieve sufficient manifold pressure. The Nissan-based Electromotive V-6 engines are computer-controlled — power-by- wire if you will. At power settings up to 50 inches manifold pressure, the black box adjusts throttle, mixture, propeller, and spark timing. Above 50 inches, it also adjusts the turbochargers'(two on each engine) wastegates to maintain race power settings up to about 95 inches. The inability to get above 50 inches was first explored thoroughly from the software side to no avail. Then it was discovered that the stiff, rubberized induction line was being softened by the hot turbo during runup and collapsing under the 17 inches of vacuum generated at race power, limiting airflow. After some reinforcing, a ground run yielded more than 80 inches on each side, and while the lines resoftened early in Sunday's Bronze race, pilot Rick Brickert managed a second-place finish at 365 mph on just 50-percent power.
While warbird racers joke about lapping the Pond Racer, namesake and crew are happy. They know where they are in development and are convinced that they have a winner. Bob Pond's special blend of competitiveness, tempered by magnanimity and the will to see a long, expensive project through — to achieve his goal of warbird preservation — is praiseworthy.
Lyle Shelton's Rare Bear, reigning champ and, at 528 mph, the fastest piston-powered airplane ever, arrived this year with money problems (a sad commentary in itself). That meant no spare engine, and while he qualified at a record 482 mph, the previously mentioned melted piston meant metal in the innards. With two new jugs and the engine flushed as much as possible, Shelton gingerly stroked Rare Bear through the heats in order to go for broke against longtime rival Bill (Tiger) Destefani in the highly tweaked P-51 Strega in the Sunday Gold.
The Strega pit was a model of calm professionalism. Years of steady development had apparently brought a new level of dependability to this most-modified V1650 Merlin. The adaptation of stronger Allison connecting rods beefed up the vulnerable lower end of this engine, which is capable of about 2 hp per cubic-inch displacement at 3,400 rpm and up to 136 inches of manifold pressure.
As Crew Chief Bill Kerchenfaut steered me through their spotless workplace on Saturday, he described their problems so far. All were minor, related to spark plugs, magnetos, and a leaky prop seal. The order and the detailed level of preparation was impressive, down to the astronaut-style cool suit for Destefani and the real-time telemetry that permits him to keep his eyes outside at all times, flying the race, with engine condition and trends constantly relayed to him over a discreet Arinc frequency. If this was to be their year, they had it coming.
Sunday's main events are well-reported history now. More superb pilotage was demonstrated by Alan Preston in Miss America when the engine quit at 75 feet over the pit straightaway, while leading the Silver race. He pulled up, using the enormous kinetic energy of a P-51 at 450 mph to bend it around and put it on the National Guard taxiway on the other side of the airport.
In the Gold, Strega was ahead from the start, followed closely by Rare Bear. For three laps at ever-increasing speeds, they held position until Rare Bear blew with a big *pop* and a thick trail of white oil smoke. Shelton then made perhaps the last of a long series of superb power-off landings in the clip-wing, flapless Bearcat. It was Strega's year at last.
A detailed view from the pits of the National Championship Air Races at Reno could fill a large volume. Mine was limited to three days, two eyes, and a pair of very tired feet. My most lasting impressions are of the great camaraderie and selfless mutual aid enjoyed by all the racers. Also, it's a great testament to skill and dedication to safety that 29 years of obviously risky racing at Reno has produced no fatalities among the Unlimiteds, and it's a real pleasure to find the world's fastest motorsport to be dominated by such nice people.
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AOPA President Mark Baker and AOPA Foundation Executive Director Jim Minow are challenging one another to see who can recruit the most Hat in the Ring Society members for the foundation before the end of the year.
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