What? Airplanes RACE?

Of course they do, ever since 1909! Please note that AIR races are not to be confused with SUBMARINE races. (You haven’t heard of submarine races? Go ask your parents, or perhaps your grandparents for an explanation.)

At the AIR races you can actually SEE the aircraft both in the pits and of course when they go over your head at full out race speed. Which is a most memorable auditory experience.

When in college I attended every Reno Air Race event from 1966 until 1970 when full time aviation employment took priority over enjoyable aviation events. So when invited to attend the 2021 races with good friends and WPA members Gregg Ortega and Jerry Barkley I jumped at the chance.

I am happy to report that after 57 years, the Reno Air Races are alive and well. Read on for the details.

Since 1966 the races are held annually in September at the former Stead Air Force Base north of downtown Reno. While the city is growing like a thistle with daily fertilizer I was somewhat pleased to see the Stead airport still much as I remembered from the early days.

Of course back then there were only a couple of hangars; one of which belonged to Bill Lear where he was developing several innovative projects such as the Learstar.

Now there are dozens of substantial hangers housing multiple aviation companies. Most of which appear to be related to the care and feeding of the various aircraft speedsters at the event.

Statute of limitations being expired I can confess that starving college students in the early days had a way to avoid paying admission to the event. That involved departing home base in the middle of the night and flying single engine airplanes over some very unforgiving high terrain to arrive at Stead at a very early hour. Well before the ticket takers had arrived to commence their duties. (Yes in those days we WOULD rather fly than eat!)

Of course Stead is now CLOSED to non event aircraft during air race week so that door has long been nailed closed.

Jumping forward to 2021, arrival at the event is actually quite civil. We travel to Reno via Alaska Airlines and after a restful night downtown we meet at the local grocery outlet for necessary supplies. Said beverages are then deposited in a large cooler and buried in ice.

This year we are sharing box seats on the flight line with several other friends. That gives us the privilege of dropping our cooler at a location outside the venue. With appropriate markings our cooler almost beats us to our seats every morning.

To get to our assigned seating, we first have to transit the obligatory concession area. Featuring $10 hot dogs, over priced race programs, chances to win rides in war birds and multiple opportunities to purchase suitably marked aviation apparel.

Beyond the general concessions are the secure areas where the race aircraft are parked and maintained. These are the “PITS” and are accessed with an appropriate daily pass for a slightly higher ticket price.

In my opinion, Pit Passes are worthwhile for a day or two but not necessarily for EVERY day. But you should indulge at least one time in order to get a close look at the actual aircraft and in many cases chat with the pilots and maintenance folks.

OF COURSE there is a schedule of events. Organizers LOVE having schedules which in many ways really are required for an event this complicated. As long as you understand that regardless of the words on the paper the schedule is actually quite fluid and subject to change on a moments notice.

The first couple of days we could see the smoke from the many forest fires in the Sierras. This did not noticeably impact the races but did somewhat impair photography. Big telephoto lenses tend to notice any obstructions to visibility.

On Saturday afternoon a frontal system blew through with gusty winds on the race course. In spite of a dire forecast there was no precipitation but the net result of these meteorological conditions were some race cancellations and postponements. Which made that aforementioned event schedule quite fluid.

Events generally kicked off around 07:30 with qualifying rounds for the various classes of racer. According to the above mentioned schedule we would see the Formula One racers (very small and very fast), then the biplanes, the sport aircraft, the T-6 event and the Unlimited event.

For those who may not know, the North American T-6 were trainer aircraft from WWII. The Unlimited aircraft were front-line fighters from the same era. There is also a Jet event featuring former military jet trainers from more current times.

During the interludes between the actual races, we were treated to various aeronautical demonstrations.

One event that I had not seen before were the STOL/Drag Racers. Very small aircraft, think Piper Cub. Highly modified with big engines, high lift devices and other interesting features such as one airplane with a reversing propeller. The idea was for two racers to make a takeoff, fly a distance of two thousand feet at minimum altitude then land beyond a marked line. The requirement was to land and come to a complete stop, then when the judge gave the appropriate signal to then turn around and fly back to the start line. The winner was the first airplane to come to a complete stop the second time. Note that the airplane with the reversing prop was slower than the competition but could stop quicker. So it was all quite competitive.

Eric Tucker was there in his Piper Cub, playing a spectator who jumped into an unattended airplane then got it into the air. The race announcer was part of the act, giving totally unnecessary instructions via the PA system. Eventually they send out an ambulance with a landing pad on top whereTucker makes a flawless landing.

Except of course on Saturday when gusty winds called for a more conventional landing.

Nonstop from Beale AFB near Sacramento we got to see the cold war era U-2 spy plane. A most difficult airplane to land; requiring a chase car on the runway behind calling out altitude readings to the pilot. The chase car is there, but after a brief touchdown the airplane executes a go-around and heads west for home.

The Honda Jet flew everyday, This is a current generation business jet developed by THAT Honda corporation. It is actually an impressive little airplane with good performance and a very low noise signature. Unfortunately to my eye it was more of an expensive commercial than it was a legitimate flight demonstration.

Jim Peitz flew a daily aerobatic routine in his F-33C Bonanza. Now this really WAS an aerobatic performance rather than a sales demo. Not only was Jim flying his own Beech Bonanza, but this airplane is a 2002 model and definitely NOT fresh off of the show room floor.

Courtesy of the USAF, we did get an impressive flight demonstration of the F-35A Lightning flown by Major Kristin Wolfe. Lady Pilots ROCK! After her solo performance she was joined by Steve Hinton flying a P-51 Mustang in a performance called Patriotic Flight. Watching the two aircraft in formation was a visual cornucopia of sight and sound.

Not to be outdone, the Marines brought their V-22 Osprey which flew a daily airborne demonstration. A most impressive combination of conventional transport and VERTOL (vertical takeoff and landing.) Made me wonder what the bad guys would think if that thing came into their backyard at 2 am with a bunch of Marines on board.

Of course the final demonstration every day were the USAF Thunderbirds. Over the four days we got to see both the “low” and the “high” show.

Again in my opinion the Navy Blue Angels are equally as good but no one world wide is better. Both groups put on a most impressive show, worth the time and effort to attend.

So on Sunday, our fourth day on the flight line and looking forward to a repeat of the previous three days my friend Gregg pulls a surprise rabbit out of a hidden location.

He has powered up his cell phone with an extensive contact list and called a source who will not be named here. But our most secret individual has official reason to be driving around the restricted areas of the race course on sanctioned duties.

And we are INVITED to join him for the afternoon! Well, YEE-Haw!

I had just enough time to grab a couple of extra camera batteries from my bag and we are then escorted to an unmarked car at an undisclosed location and off we go.

We navigate miles of unmarked dirt road and eventually arrive at a pylon called Outer 4. This is the first pylon that the big aircraft will arrive at following the start of the race. We are also on a ridge top; this is the highest pylon on the race course with great views in all directions.

All is quiet as we check in with the pylon judges and sign their register. But I barely have time to get the camera ready when we hear the classic call over the radio: “Gentlemen, we have a race!”

Seconds later we see the gaggle of warbirds heading for our pylon at full speed. Now I have an idea of what the Germans felt like during a P-51 raid in occupied Europe.

The entire flight goes over our head at 400 knots and at minimum altitude. The only rule is that the aircraft canopy must be ABOVE the top of the pylon.

You can’t talk, you cannot hear even shouted conversation and if you blink you miss the entire thing. But who the hell wants to talk. Just enjoy the once in a lifetime sensation of being that close to war birds in full throat.

The next pylon is Outer 5 and it is several hundred feet lower in the valley beyond our location. Which means that EVERY damn airplane starts a dive as soon as they are clear of our location.

A couple of judges are positioned at each pylon on every race. The pylon marker is open in the middle so it is just a matter of being at the base of the pole sighting up through the barrel. As one judge put it, if they see any part of the airplane within that circle the airplane is disqualified.

So at top speed the race pilot wants to come as close to the pylon as is possible without actually being OVER the pylon. We watch the Unlimited racers, the T-6 group and finally the Jet class. The action for Outer 4 is over for awhile and our escort needs to relocate to pylon 6 for the next racers.

It’s a long walk home so we make the obvious choice and soon find ourselves at Pylon 6. This is part of the “valley of speed, the back side of the course where racers try to pick up their speed prior to coming back over the home section.

You have no idea of how hard it is to get a photo of a 400 knot racer that close to the pylon.

Basically you point the camera at the pole, guess how high the airplane will be when passing and take the photo about ONE second BEFORE the airplane actually gets there. Yes, they ARE moving that fast. I am shooting at 1/3000 of a second, the fastest my camera will go given the existing light and it is still very hard to get a good shot.

We are treated to a couple of more races then it is time to catch our ride back to the grandstands to watch the last of the races and of course one more event with the Thunderbirds.

After the sound and fury of racing has concluded for one more year, we recover back to the hotel. Ten hours later we are back at Reno International and boarding our flight for home.

All I can say to you aviation enthusiasts is NEVER EVER pass up a chance to travel to Reno and experience the premier west coast aviation event in person.

Thanks to Joe Frew, Jerry Barkley and Gregg Ortega for making this experience possible.