In September 2012 I went to one of the top aerial events of the world, the 49th annual Reno Air Races (a 5 day event) just outside Reno, Nevada USA. The races really are a fantastic event and they have it all from high-speed racing aircraft and warbirds to aerobatic aircraft and military jets. The week leading up to the air races I also got to see a mass hot air balloon launch for the kickoff of The Great Reno Balloon Race and over in Sacramento, I went to the California Capital Air Show. So it was a great aviation week for me!
Reno hosts the National Championship Air Races each year. The 2012 Reno race event was themed as a tribute to those people tragically lost in the race crash of 2011 and also to the heroism of the first responders who conducted rescue operations following the crash. A modified North American P-51 Mustang “The Galloping Ghost” flown by James K. Leeward (74 years old) crashed during a race into the crowd killing him, 10 spectators and injuring 69 others. Due to this tragedy it was feared the races would never be held again, but modifications to the race format to increase safety have allowed it to continue and the 2012 races were on. The opening ceremony tribute was a touching moment.
The best way to describe the air races is to imagine a large number of aircraft flying very close together (at times wingtip to wingtip) and very low across the desert floor at high-speed (approximately 5o feet is the minimum altitude allowed). It is spectacular to watch!
The racing aircraft fly around a course which is marked out by pylons (15.2 metre / 50 foot telephone poles) out in the desert nearby Reno Stead Field. Judges are stationed near each pole to ensure the race rules are followed at all times. The entire course is visible from the airport spectator areas and the finish line is right in front of the central grandstands.
The races involve numerous heat events leading up to the finale weekend which hosts the finals to determine the grand champion across a number of race classes:
Biplane Class – Small aerobatic aircraft like the Pitts Special, they race over a 5.12 km / 3.18 mile course flying at speed in excess of 320 kph / 200 mph.
Formula One Class – These small racing aircraft (often built by the pilots) are all fitted with the same Continental O-200 engine and race around a 5.12 km / 3.18 mile course and hit speeds up to 400 kph / 250 mph.
Sports Class – High performance kit built aircraft that race around a longer 11.25 km / 6.99 mile course hitting speeds upwards of 560 kph / 350 mph! These aircraft are very streamlined and virtually all engine!
T-6 Class – the venerable World War Two era North American T-6 Texan (Harvard in Commonwealth countries and SNJ in the US Navy) is raced in this class around an 8.14 km / 5.06 mile course with top speeds upwards of 370 kph /230 mph.
Jet Class – This is an interesting mix of smaller jets, mostly Cold War era Czech built Aero jets such as the L-29 Delfin and L-39 Albatros (but is open to all similar aircraft such as the PZL Iskra, de Havilland Vampire and BAE Jet Provost). They race around an 13.63 km / 8.47 mile course exceeding 800 kph / 500 mph (great to watch at such low altitudes)!
It was great to meet the crew of an Aussie team flying an L-39 “Blank Czech“ too (they were getting about in golf buggies with inflatable Kangaroos and the Australian flag) – they come in from Australia but the aircraft is US based.
Unlimited Class – Now this is the big show, the one most people come to see. These prop driven racers are mostly modified (some extremely so!) World War Two era aircraft such as the North American P-51D Mustang, Vought F4U Corsair, Grumman F7F Tigercat, Grumman F8F Bearcat and Hawker Sea Fury. They race around a 13.57 km / 8.43 mile course exceeding 800 kph / 500 mph. The aircraft in the Unlimited Class have great names too like: “Strega” (P-51D), “Rare Bear” (F8F), “Sawbones” (Sea Fury), “September Fury” (Sea Fury), “Speedball Alice” (P-51D), “Miss America” (P-51D), “Dreadnought” (Sea Fury), “Argonaut” (Sea Fury), “Precious Metal” (P-51XR) and “Air Biscuit” (FM-2 Wildcat). This was my favourite race event by far!
In addition with a special pass (available at the ticket office each day) you can wander around the pits area and get a real insight into the maintenance of these racing aircraft. You get to see the engines up close and the work that goes into getting these old aircraft up into the sky each day. I thoroughly recommend you do this if you ever attend the races.
Reno is more than just the air races as you can also see historical aircraft, warbirds, aerobatic aircraft and modern military jets in the public static areas. Then between the races are numerous flying displays of many of these aircraft that form the air show component of each day. The highlight of these air displays were the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighters of the USAF along with air force and navy heritage flights.
The event also hosts the National Aviation Heritage Invitational competition for the best restored flying historical aircraft. In 2012 the overall winner was a 1944 Consolidated Vultee Stinson OY-1. This aircraft is owned by Duncan Cameron of Lebanon, TN and he was awarded the Neil A. Armstrong Aviation Heritage Trophy.
The Unlimited Class Grand Champion for 2012 was Steve Hinton Jnr. (24 years old) flying “Strega” a heavily modified P-51 Mustang (the 10th championship for this aircraft). This was by far the standout aircraft during the heats and was more or less the favourite to win the event. The other winners were Tom Aberle in a Mong Racer “Phantom” in the biplane event, Steve Senegal took the honours in the Formula One race in an Arnold AR-6 “Endeavor“, Rick Vandom won the jet race in L-39 “American Spirit“ and Nick Macy in “Six Cat” took out the T-6 race.
2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Reno Air Races. This will be a bigger than ever event and one well worth checking out on your aviation calendar.