Historic Airplane Competition To Skip Reno, But There’s Always Next Year

If past winners are any guide, some of the most magnificent vintage aircraft flying today will compete for awards in 2017.

Civilian aircraft built in 1935 or earlier are eligible to compete for a trophy in the antique category, and this handsome 1932 Waco UBF-2, owned by the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon, won the antique trophy last year. Known as the king of biplanes, the Wacos have a charming history and three-letter designation codes incomprehensible to all but the most committed Waco historians.
The Grumman G-111, the 2013 People’s Choice winner, was designed for the U.S. Navy as the HU-16 Albatross but overhauled by Grumman for commercial use with Chalk’s Ocean Airways, an airline that operated between Florida and the Bahamas. Chalk’s parked several of the 13 modified amphibians in Arizona, where Joe Duke found his in 2008. He and Albatross pilot and restorer Paul LeVeque spent five years on the restoration.
A Beech 18 is hard to beat any time, and for 2013 Heritage Grand Champion trophy, it was impossible. Not only the most accurately and elaborately restored aircraft at the event that year but the shiniest, the 1946 Beech is one of a handful owned by Matt Walker of Henderson, Nevada.
The eagles have landed. National Aviation Heritage trophies are lined up in front of the airplane that won the 2013 People’s Choice Award as well as a trophy in the large airplane category: a 1954 Grumman G-111 Albatross, owned by Joe Duke of St. Augustine, Florida.
The 1945 Goodyear Corsair FGID, owned by Brian Reynolds of Olympia, Washington, left the 2014 Heritage event with two trophies: one for the best restoration of a military aircraft and one for the People’s Choice. The F4U Corsair, one of the most famous Marine aircraft of all time, was designed and built by the Vought aircraft company, but so great was the need for airplanes during World War II that many manufacturers subcontracted production to other companies; in the case of Corsairs, to Goodyear.
The 2013 trophy for classic airplanes—those built in 1936 or earlier—went to the 1949 Aeronca 11-CC owned by Damon Duree of Oakland, California. People who want to learn to fly tail draggers often start with the sweet-natured Aeronca Chief.
National Aviation Heritage Trophy judge and warbird expert Taigh Ramey has brought his Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon to the Heritage event for several years, and though it hasn’t yet won a trophy, it always attracts a crowd. Ramey, who runs a restoration business specializing in Beech 18s and large warbirds, managed a team of volunteers to restore this massive aircraft. The size of the job is obvious in the before-and-after photos of the restoration. Because of their long range, Harpoons were used by the Navy during World War II for strikes against Japan that were launched from the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
The legendary Ford Tri-motor was the Boeing 737 of 1920s America: During that decade, if you traveled by air, you probably sat in a wicker chair in the cabin of this type.  The 1929 Ford Tri-Motor that won the large aircraft Heritage trophy in 2012 once carried tourists over the Grand Canyon and is owned and cared for by John Seibold, co-owner of Grand Canyon Airlines. It is on display at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Valle, Arizona.
Winning the trophy for best military restoration in 2012, the 1965 Bell UH-1H Huey owned by Mike Haus and Chris Miller of Concord, California, also won the hearts of the Reno crowd. After the crash during the 2011 race, which killed the pilot and 10 spectators, the Huey, which was at the races to participate in the Heritage judging, did just what Hueys had done in Vietnam: carried the wounded to safety and medical treatment. The 2012 People’s Choice award went to the hero of Reno’s worst day.
Many of the airplanes judged in the Heritage event are one-of-a-kind treasures. Few have the larger-than-life history of this Sikorsky amphibian. Since it won the People’s Choice trophy in 2008, Tom Schrade’s reproduction of the 1929 Sikorsky S-38 seaplane “Osa’s Ark” has found a new home. The original airplane was flown on an African adventure in the 1930s.
It happened only once in the 17-year history of the Heritage trophy: One airplane won three trophies. Owned by Max Chapman of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and restored by John Muszala’s Pacific Fighters restoration company, the 1944 P-51B Mustang represented a famous World War II ace, a young man’s admiration for him, and the extraordinary skills of restorers who practically built a P-51 by hand. World War II ace Bud Anderson (second from left) presented the trophies to Muszala and his two sons.

Over the last 17 years, nearly 400 historic and beautifully restored aircraft have competed for recognition at the National Aviation Heritage Invitational, an event that has become a fixture at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Each year, a couple dozen airworthy vintage aircraft—civilian and military—were positioned on the ramp at Reno-Stead airport, where judges evaluated the quality and accuracy of the restorations and airplane fans strolled among the competitors and voted for their favorites. (Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine participated by providing and counting the ballots for the People’s Choice Trophy.)

Not this year. The Heritage trophy event has recently announced that it will suspend its 2016 competition, because it “has outgrown the ramp space and resources allocated to it by the Reno Air Races,” according to Executive Director Ken Perich. The NAHI group also announced that it’s preparing for its 2017 event.

That the group is starting to work toward 2017 is good news both for those who have been lucky enough to see the collection of competitors in the past and for those who may now have the chance to see them at Reno—or somewhere else—in the future. A number of things set this competition apart from others. First, the airplane owners or restorers are almost always standing by their airplanes and happy to talk about their treasures’ histories and restorations with the curious. Second, the stories they tell about the airplanes are not only fun to hear but are instructive about the history of aviation as a whole. Because of the range of aircraft represented and the chattiness of the people who bring them, you cannot come away from a Heritage Invitational without learning something about aviation that you didn’t know before. Third, one of the founders of the Heritage event is the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and that organization has arranged for some of its most illustrious honorees to present the awards on Trophy Day. Neil Armstrong, who in his later years didn’t honor many requests to participate in public events, was a frequent Heritage trophy presenter because he loved airplanes. Other presenters have included test pilot and airshow great Bob Hoover, P-51 ace Bud Anderson, record breaker Dick Rutan, space shuttle commander and Reno Race Champion Hoot Gibson, and Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher.

The other thing that sets this awards program apart: The people get to vote.

To give you an idea of what you might expect at the 2017 competition, we’ve rounded up some of the past winners of the National Aviation Heritage Invitational trophies in various award categories, grand champion, and people’s choice. Thanks to photographer Roger Cain for making his portraits of the winners available in the gallery at top.

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