Rookie School

Go fast, fly low, and turn left

November 1, 2000

Think you can hold your altitude to within 40 feet? You'd better if you want to race at Reno, because 40 feet is all you've got. If you don't, you tie the record for low-altitude flight at ground level. You'll have to be as high as 40 feet when passing the pylons outlining the course or risk a penalty and loss of points. That means your helmet has to be above the "R" in the word "Reno" as you pass the starting pylon.

The annual National Championship Air Races occurring every September are reminiscent of aviation's Golden Age when the whole nation tuned in to listen on the radio. They are no less exciting today, although they attract a smaller but growing audience.

Training for the air races takes place at the Pylon Racing Seminar, but the curriculum is not as boring as the name implies. The three-day seminar takes place at Reno/Stead Airport located in the lip-drying desert 10 miles north of Reno. Called "rookie school" by many—a name detested by some Reno Air Racing Association officials—it's a requirement not only for new race pilots, but for those who have not raced in three years. Many race pilots who are not required to attend come just to practice. It's a mini Reno air race with all classes of aircraft represented, from the 125-mph Biplanes to the roaring 500-mph Unlimited aircraft.

As a new student, you'll soon learn that holding altitude isn't the only skill you'll need. Ever done aerobatics? Turbulence from the racer ahead, or the one above, can flip a race plane inverted in an instant. And since you are only 40 feet up to begin with, there isn't a lot of time to analyze the situation. You must have the necessary skill to roll upright with zero loss of altitude if you want to impress the school's instructors.

There's one more skill you'll need: formation flying. Each race starts with eight to 10 aircraft in close formation, like the start of an auto race. Even after the air race begins, basic formation skills continue to be important in the turns. You must rise on the wing of the aircraft on the inside of the turn in order for both pilots to maintain visual contact. Rolling into a turn beneath an aircraft means the top pilot loses sight of you, and could dive down, suddenly thinking that the way is clear.

Finally, you'll need to be very good at emergencies, especially if you race with the faster classes of aircraft where engines are pushed past the limit.

Surprisingly, many pilots without the necessary skills to meet the challenges of racing make the attempt, but learn at the school that they are not ready. It's easy to spot them; they're out behind a hangar crying into their plastic water bottles after the first flight.

Is all that skill necessary? For example, do they really have to fly at 40 feet? Jon Sharp, after all, has dominated Formula One races at Reno by literally remaining above the fray at 500 feet. The reason for low flying is, RARA officials say, that the 40-foot pylons are easier to see down low. Cutting off a corner and turning inside a pylon, called a pylon cut, means that points are deducted. But avoiding a cut means that eight to 10 aircraft are all at the same altitude on the same 3-statute-mile circular course, trying to get close to the same pylons: It's dangerous.

Day one

Making rookies think about the danger, and helping them to avoid cooking up any foolish tricks intended to win, are the subjects of the ground school lectures on the first day of class. While the topics also cover the history and fun of racing, many of the anecdotes told are about accidents and near accidents of the past. Occasionally, stories from speakers are interrupted and embellished by tales of bravado from racers in the audience.

Sitting quietly in the midst of this flash flood of testosterone is Mary Dilda, a North American T-6 racer and an ex-Air Force transport pilot who has defeated all the men in her T-6 class in past years. She is here today to teach them how to win, along with her husband, Steve, who will be chief instructor for the T-6 rookies—his official title is class president. Both Steve and Mary are Federal Express pilots. Like Mary, Steve also has won a race or two at Reno.

There are several classes of race pilots here today; in addition to the T-6 and Formula One classes, there are the Biplane and Sport classes, and the crowd-pleasing Unlimited racers made up of modified warbirds.

Day one begins in the RARA hangar with a breakfast of doughnuts and coffee. Honey, the official RARA dog, wanders around looking for a golf cart to ride in or a picture to pose for. The pilots get to know one another while sipping coffee. It is important to meet on peaceful terms now. If past history is any indication, many of them will become fierce competitors in the future. Two of them have already met. Jim Morgan, owner of a North American AT-6, has invited Wayne Cartwright of Salem, Oregon, to be his race pilot; Morgan's aircraft is better known by its racing number as Race 44. The two met when Cartwright, a charter pilot, was hired to fly Morgan's B-25 bomber at airshows. Cartwright is a little nervous at the prospect of his new career—OK, a lot nervous.

"I thought this might be a little too much for an Oregon farm boy," Cartwright says. "But when I thought about it, I like to go fast, fly low, and I haven't got anything against turning left." He'd give it a try, he decided, but as the class began he had his doubts. "Maybe they'll ask me to go home," he worried.

There is no "formal" flunking of the school, but if the veterans don't think you are safe to race at Reno, you won't. It's kind of a self-governing thing. It isn't easy flying low at full throttle through desert thermals that feel like a road full of potholes, not to mention tangling with competitors above, below, and off to one side.

As the doughnuts disappear and the coffee cools, hangar tales emerge. There are stories of a biplane pilot who died when his aircraft flew into high terrain on one side of the course. His friends think he got distracted and simply forgot to climb the hill. And a Pitts pilot recalls getting so low that he was looking up at the sagebrush; at Stead, the sagebrush is only four feet high, but seated in a Pitts cockpit, it is possible to look up at sagebrush.

Then there was the P?51 pilot who got caught in turbulence between the desert floor and another aircraft flying at 40 feet and smashed into the ground. A shocked observer remarked to an associate, "He's dead." But instead, the plane burst through the cloud of dust—the aircraft's belly air scoop had been flattened by the impact—and climbed to a safe altitude where the pilot lowered the gear and safely landed.

Soon it's time for the hangar flying to end and for the class to begin; it's time for the neophytes to get religion about safety, with the reverend Alan Preston presiding. Preston is actually a movie pilot (look for his flying in the movie Pearl Harbor) and a Los Angeles businessman.

"If you do not listen," Preston tells the 40 students, "then you will have paid money [for the class] to kill yourself." They appear to be listening.

"Aerobatics, low-level flight, formation flying, and emergencies. Be good at those things," Preston continues. Emergencies are not uncommon at Reno. One year seven aircraft, more than half the field, declared emergencies in a single race. Each had to pull up out of the pack as the emergencies occurred and land; some had engine failures. Usually, aircraft in distress can safely maneuver to land on a runway, but sometimes they must use a taxiway or a road cut through the sagebrush as a firebreak. Rookies must demonstrate emergency-landing skills as part of the course.

Preston continues with advice that trickery can't overcome lack of horsepower, and then adds this final warning: "Your airplane is a cold-hearted, lifeless son of a bitch, and it will kill you," Preston concludes. The class is silent: message received. Preston has the experience to back up his words, and the students know it. He is an instructor at the Unlimited level, but in 1986 he raced in all five classes at a single Reno air race; he remains the only pilot ever to have done that. He also knows what it is like to come in first and win the gold.

Underscoring the danger, a few hours after Preston's warning a student rolls off the end of a runway and noses over in the desert. The pilot received only minor injuries, while the aircraft sustained damage to its wooden propeller, wings, and tail. At the time, RARA safety officials were evaluating the pilot's ability to handle emergency landings. They joke later that they didn't mean for the student to also rehearse getting taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Once the morning ground school session is over, the pilots break into their respective aircraft classes.

The Biplane class—true to its Rodney Dangerfield image—meets in a small building outside the hangar. There's no room in the inn for these pilots. During the actual event in September, the Biplane class race is over even before The Star Spangled Banner is sung. Yet veterans Mike Stubbs, Dennis Brown, and Mike Brown said that theirs is the more interesting race.

While higher-speed races quickly turn into a parade, with slower aircraft unable to keep up with the leaders, the biplanes are more evenly matched, Stubbs said. There is lots of passing, and often a race develops among a stack of racers four or five aircraft high all vying for first place. The crowd loves it—at least, that portion of the crowd that arrives in time. "Because of our lowly consideration, we're always down and done before the air races begin," said one pilot.

In a way, they are lucky to be off the course early in the day. Racing early means flying in cooler temperatures and less severe thermals. Speeds are lower as well, ranging from 110 to 215 mph, which helps to smooth the ride.

As day one draws to a close, Cartwright enters the course for the first time and discovers that he loves racing. Instructor Sid Snedeker later tells Steve Dilda that Cartwright will probably make it. Cartwright doesn't know that yet.

Day two

All-night noise from the wild and crazy gamblers at the Ramada Speakeasy Casino in downtown Reno did not give Cartwright the rest he needs to fly low and fast, but it will have to do. (Turning left is still not a problem for him.) Maybe the caffeine and sugar waiting in the RARA hangar will provide the needed boost. As usual, the race school day starts brutally early, just as the gamblers fade into silence from exhaustion.

The morning ground school covers the same topics as those of the first day: safety, danger, and memories of races past. Prior to the class everyone must sign in or they don't fly. As the pilots break into their respective classes, a RARA official goes looking for Unlimited racer Tom Dwelle to ground him. They can't find his signature, and rules are rules; without a safety briefing, a pilot does not fly. But Dwelle was sitting beside an AOPA Pilot writer who reports Dwelle's attendance. Dwelle is saved by AOPA, but later during his afternoon flight in Critical Mass he pushes his new 4,500-hp engine past the limits set for break-in. The engine is fine, but his engine mechanic is furious. There's nothing AOPA can do this time.

As the flights for the day begin, an offer to ride along comes from Glasair III pilot Arnie Luters. It is afternoon, when the thermals will be at their worst. A mass formation of a half-dozen aircraft forms up after taking off in smaller groups. The lead aircraft is too fast, and there is trouble joining. The formation finally comes together just a few miles from the airport, where a descent to the race course will begin.

On the first circuit at 40 feet the lead pilot calls the pylons. They are in locations unfamiliar to even the experienced pilots, so the first circuit is devoted to course familiarization. The pylons were moved in the interest of safety to protect housing developments that have steadily moved closer to Stead Airport. After the first circuit the course is open for practice.

"Let's see what it will do," says Luters, mashing the throttle against the panel. We had been doing 180 kt indicated, and now we accelerate to 200. Our low altitude gives the term groundspeed a whole new meaning; groundspeed is that blur outside. One side of the course lies over rising terrain, and I am mentally helping the pilot by thinking, "Remember to go up the hill." The next day the Biplane pilots take me around the course for photos, and the turbulence during that late-morning flight is notably less. The combination of speed, noise, turbulence, and heat must be exhausting for the pilots, but most show only exhilaration.

The practice laps last only a few minutes; there are many pilots waiting to use the course. Once back on the ground, a half-dozen T-6 aircraft—there are a couple of North American SNJ-5s in there as well—come onto the course en masse. They look impressive, like veteran race pilots. Cartwright is in there somewhere aboard Race 44. Is he still acing the course, or did the all-night door slamming at the Ramada Speakeasy result in a day of Flydifficult?

Following the T-6 practice, Steve Dilda holds a debriefing on the ramp for his pilots. A photographer who has observed and photographed the personnel at Reno for years says Dilda's briefings are textbook. Dilda allows Pilot to attend what will be the final training debriefing. There are some things he liked, and one pilot in particular whom he didn't like.

Both Mary, flying in a separate aircraft as an instructor, and Steve observed one student turning underneath them. They lost visual contact with the student's aircraft. "If that continues," Dilda tells the student's instructor, "he is going to be sitting in the stands watching the race instead of racing." Fortunately he is not talking about Cartwright. For Cartwright there is a supreme compliment from Dilda. "You are going to be hard to beat," Dilda tells him. It is later learned that Cartwright sits in the groove around the course, unfazed by the confusion around him, and makes few mistakes that would give the advantage to competitors. The praise serves as Cartwright's graduation ceremony.

Day three

The pressure's off. The last day is used for a group picture including Honey the dog; final briefings and administrative details; and a mass formation flight over the rodeo downtown that is similar in size and importance to a state fair. Cartwright has made it. After photos of new friends and a preflight of Race 44, it is back to Oregon. The question of whether he is good enough to race at Reno has been answered. Now Cartwright can race with the best and fly for the gold.

Other information about the National Championship Air Races can be found on AOPA Online ( E-mail the author at [email protected]. Because of an illness in his family, Cartwright elected not to race this year—Ed.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.