Reno Enters the Jet Age

They’re not as fast as the top Unlimiteds, but the national air racing organization is gambling on jets to boost attendance.

One of Reno’s most coveted prizes is a pit pass, which allows the audience to get up close and personal with the musclebound Unlimiteds. Caroline Sheen

"LOOK," SAYS DON KIRLIN, OPENING THE forward avionics compartment of an Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros that not long ago prowled the skies over the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. The narrow space in the jet’s nose once held 700 pounds of avionics but now is empty. “We took an area that was used for targeting weapons and you can now haul two sets of golf clubs!” crows Kirlin, the United States’ largest importer of L-39s. “And,” he says, like a born salesman, “you could put it right down on the fairway!”

This former Eastern Bloc trainer and attack jet is not being prepped for a day on the links. It’s about to star in pylon air racing. In September seven L-39s will compete in the first jet-class race at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. It is the latest in a series of moves to keep the world’s fastest motorsport from going the way of the drive-in movie. The sheer improbability of Kirlin’s sales pitch speaks volumes about how much times have changed and the long-maligned way the former Soviet bloc designed and built airplanes.

When Roscoe Turner and Jimmy Doolittle cranked around the pylons in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they did so in cutting-edge technology. Their machines were among the fastest in the air, including the military’s. When 100,000 fans crowded the National Air Races at Cleveland in 1929, they were treated to the best pilots flying the world’s hottest aircraft, and Doolittle and Turner became household names. In recent years, however, Reno has become a mere vestige of that era, a showcase of arguably irrelevant technology. The marquee event, the Unlimited class, features World War II airplanes that haven’t seen active service in the lifetimes of anyone born after 1950 and whose speeds haven’t increased in two decades. A Bearcat or Mustang may bring tears to the eyes of a man or woman of a certain age, but for legions of people born after World War II, it’s just another antique. The race is won year after year by the same handful of airplanes that are 100 mph faster than most of their competitors. And consider the sheer expense: a million or more for a Mustang or Bearcat, $200,000 for an engine that might not last the first lap, thousands more for fuel and parts. “The Unlimiteds are just so expensive and the engine builders are getting scarcer,” says longtime Unlimited racer Jimmy Leeward. “You can only afford to run a Dago Red or Rare Bear once a year,” says Skip Holm, 2000’s Gold Unlimited winner. “If you break ’em, it takes a year just to fix ’em. If NASCAR had only one race a year, it wouldn’t have many fans. It’s amazing that Reno can get anyone at all to come!”

For a while it almost couldn’t. “Racing alone wasn’t paying the bills, and four years ago we were as close to shutting down as is possible,” says Michael Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association. In debt and faced with declining attendance, the races had to make a decision: It was adapt or die, says Houghton, “and we made a commitment to turn it around. We’re in show business, and we have to put on an entertaining event for the broadest number of people. We talked to our crowd and they told us they wanted to see some new things take place.”

First, Reno beefed up the airshow portion of the event, increasing its static displays and adding flying performances between every race. In 1998 it introduced the Sport class (see “Back in the Race,” Aug./Sept. 2000). The class was open to production model kit-built aircraft, one of the fastest growing segments of general aviation, and it was hoped that a NASCAR-like battle between factory-sponsored teams would develop as racers flew airplanes that John Doe in the stands could afford to own and fly.

Reno was getting exciting again. From a low of 120,000 spectators in the mid-1990s, attendance rose 60 percent in 2000 to 189,000. Still, there remained one type of aircraft conspicuously absent from the course: jet warbirds. Reno might be the last great piston show, “but if we’re going to keep racing we have to increase the appeal of the venue, and kids identify with jets, not Mustangs,” says Rick Vandam, Reno’s air boss and director of operations. The race organizers wondered if recapturing Reno’s former glory would require racing a new class of aircraft.

At the 2000 races the word went out to the crowd: After the climactic Gold Unlimited race on Sunday afternoon, there’d be an exhibition jet race. Would the crowd stick around to watch?

Late on Sunday, three MiG-17s (one flown by Leeward), an L-39 flown by Rick Vandam, and a T-33 screamed onto the course. The -17 pilots had been explicitly forbidden by the Federal Aviation Administration to fire the afterburners. But you can’t handicap a good racer. After four laps Leeward was at the back of the pack, and, unable to help himself, he lit the burners. Another -17 pilot did likewise. The sound was deafening as Leeward shot well over 500 mph for the two final laps to win. The crowd in the stands went nuts, hooting and cheering. Even Merlin engine poster boy Skip Holm “found it real exciting,” he admits. Reno had passed out surveys to the crowd and the final word was unanimous. Bring on the jets.

There was only one problem. The kind of free-for-all that made the exhibition race—and the premier Unlimited class—fast and exciting seemed impossible with military jets. The fastest, highly modified Mustangs, Bearcats, and Sea Furies are all closely matched in performance and, barring a technological breakthrough, are hard put to break 500 mph doing laps. But jets come in all shapes and sizes, from straight wing to swept wing, some with afterburner and some without. The speed difference between an Aero Vodochody L-39 and a MiG-15 or F-86 is nearly 300 mph. “We couldn’t figure out a way to make it a fair race,” says Bill Eck, chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association.

Competition issues aside, the FAA gets goosebumps at the idea of civilians operating military jets anywhere, let alone on a nine-mile race course originally designed for lap speeds of 450 mph and surrounded by houses on three sides and 50,000 people on the fourth. The agency is still haunted by what Vandam calls “the Farrell’s ice cream store incident.” In 1972, a civilian-operated F-86 slammed into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor in Sacramento, California, killing 22 people, including 12 children.When Vandam brought up racing jets to the FAA, “they immediately brought up Farrell’s,” he says. Although course modifications allowed speeds of up to 550 mph, says Clarence Bohartz, FAA flight standards and operations inspector at Reno, that still wasn’t fast enough for afterburning, swept-wing jets like MiG-17s and F-86Ds. Indeed, Vandam has flown the course at 570 mph in a MiG-17, and he says, “It’s very difficult to stay within its confines.”

Still another problem was image. Jet fighters though they were, Sabres, MiG-15s and -17s, T-33s, and most of the other likely airplanes available looked old, just when Reno was trying to look new. “They say ‘Korea,’ ” says Holm. What Reno needed seemed impossibly contradictory: a jet fighter whose sleek lines raised your adrenaline, but wasn’t too fast or unstable; one that looked modern, but didn’t require a national budget to own or operate. And there had to be enough of them to draw a racing field year after year.

The L-39 Albatros might have been custom designed for those requirements. In the exotic zoo of warbirds becoming available to civilians, the Czechoslovakian-made airplane exemplified all the best characteristics of the Eastern Bloc. “The L-39 was designed to be operated well in some awful place without a paved runway by an 18-year-old with nothing but a toolbox and who may not be able to read,” says Don Kirlin. A 737 captain for US Airways and ex-Navy pilot who is vocal in his love of speed and performance, Kirlin has imported 50 of the 197 L-39s registered by the FAA. His latest arrivals, a shipment from Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, stand in various states of repair in his hangar in Quincy, Illinois, a Midwestern monument to the airplanes and air forces that just last week, it seems, were U.S. adversaries. (Across the runway in another hangar perch his two MiG-29s.) Some rest wingless in their shipping fixtures, while others, in weathered camouflage, look like they had yesterday been poised on a Central Asia flightline. “They look bad,” says Kirlin, “but that’s just because they’ve been outside their whole life. They have really low flight time.”

Eastern Bloc airplanes are often derided as crude, but Kirlin is quick to extol their virtues. “You look at these planes and you so value their designers’ thinking; they’re so simple and robust,” he says.

As a jet trainer the Albatros is easy to fly; the Soviets were known to solo pilots in the airplane with as little as 20 hours of total time. As a light attack jet it was meant to be operated on the front lines from Siberia to Central Asia, so it can take off on dirt runways in 1,500 feet and land in 2,000. It has stout landing gear and balloon tires suitable for landing on your average East German wheat field or American country club fairway. It is simply built and simple to maintain, with color-coded plumbing, for instance. A late-model airplane equipped with a 3,800-pound-thrust turbofan engine, it uses a mere 145 gallons of fuel an hour, less than half what an F-86, T-33, or MiG-17 uses. To start a MiG requires a bulky auxiliary power unit “and a lot of praying,” says Kirlin; an Albatros carries a self-starting APU. And the Albatros is no Yugo. With a top speed of 485 mph at 19,000 feet, a ceiling of 36,100 feet, and a fully aerobatic airframe, the L-39 performs like a thoroughbred.

“It’s the highest quality aircraft of its type,” says Gary Dyer, a recently retired 747 captain who took a ride in one at Reno a few years back and promptly bought one for himself, which he is loaning to the race. “It’s modern. Reliable. Pressurized. Rugged and low-cost, with air conditioning and anti-skid brakes. It’s the plane the Eastern Bloc used to train pilots who had never before flown before putting them in a MiG-21. I can do a little sightseeing and a little aerobatics in it.”

“It is a hot little airplane,” Kirlin says, “but it’s as close to pilot-proof as can be.” At Mach .78, speed brakes automatically deploy. At 176 mph, the flaps automatically retract. Still, says Kirlin, “when you’ve got your hands on the throttle and stick, you know you’ve got something serious under you.”

All true, says Tom Rowe, whose Phoenix, Arizona-based Worldwide Warbirds has imported 15 L-39s in the last year, “but every L-39 owner will tell you the planes go faster and burn less fuel than they really do! It’s funny. The planes have the highest up-time of any military training jet ever built and they’re unequalled in many ways, but they’re not rocket ships. There are other aircraft out there that are close to them in price that perform better, but aren’t air-conditioned or pressurized. And you’ve got to be careful, because a lot of the early C models have spent a lot of time sitting in a field somewhere and they require a heck of a lot of work.”

With nearly 3,000 manufactured and used everywhere from Afghanistan to Iraq, they and their parts remain plentiful and cheap. Even after they have been overhauled, painted, and loaded with new Western avionics, Kirlin sells his Albatroses for only $200,000 to $400,000. “You can get one for half the cost of a new Bonanza,” he says.

“Bingo! It hit me,” says Rick Vandam, who was friends with Kirlin and others with L-39s. “The Albatros fit perfectly. Availability, looks, simplicity. It’s such an easy airplane to fly, which means we could feature some of the top pilots and see who flies the best.”

Both to placate the FAA and to “put the personalities in front of the crowd, rather than the airplanes,” in the words of Houghton, Reno invited veterans of racing and high-performance fighters to fly the first race last September 13. It became one of the many events cancelled by the upheaval of September 11. This year, Unlimited racers Skip Holm and Jimmy Leeward, AT-6 champion Mary Dilda, former astronauts Hoot Gibson and Curt Brown, and Sport class president and former Navy F-4 pilot Lee Behel will race in identical L-39s on loan from various owners. The pilots’ starting positions will be determined by a random drawing before each race, and they’ll get points based on their finishing positions and the number of times they pass competitors. Adding to the novelty, the pilots’ pre-race briefing will be conducted in public. “We want to focus on the pilots instead of planes like Rare Bear or Strega,” says Vandam.

For the first time at Reno, blowing an engine won’t be a problem. An L-39 will be race-ready the moment it hits Stead Field, and it will be able to run all day with hardly a burp. “It’s so much more reliable and easy to fly,” says Leeward. “You’re never operating out of the envelope and you’re not waiting for technical problems or an engine to quit. And the cost is affordable.”

“L-39s are responsive and a little underpowered.” says Dilda, a DC-10 captain for Federal Express. Because coming around the pylons bleeds off airspeed and the Albatros has no afterburner, there’s no way to accelerate quickly, and that, Dilda says, “will make it a real pilot’s race.”

Holm agrees. Although Unlimited pilots like him and Leeward have more experience flying the course at high speeds than T-6 and Sport class vets like Dilda and Behel, the 400-odd-mph lap speeds won’t be as high as that of the fastest Unlimiteds. “If we were flying 100 mph faster, I’d have a real advantage,” he says, “but at that speed the people flying ’em will figure it out real quick.” With equally matched airplanes in the hands of skilled pilots, Reno wants a close race of bunched racers duking it out at high speeds.

But are L-39s the future of air racing? Even some of the jet class racers themselves wonder whether the very elements that make the L-39 such an acceptable race airplane will make the event more show and less edge-of-your-seat race. After all, part of the thrill of Unlimited racing is the knowledge that a Strega or Dago Red is a rare, million-dollar beast flying at the very edge of stability, and that at any moment the finely tuned pistons hammering at pressures unimagined by the original designers might explode in catastrophic failure. Is flying a quiet, pressurized, reliable, air-conditioned airplane exciting enough to satiate a crowd that lives for fire and noise and engine builders with the skill of magicians?

“A Gold racer is like pure adrenaline,” confesses Holm, “and an L-39 is nothing like a Gold racer. It’s the difference between a VW and a Ferrari Testarossa. That extra 100 mph and 80 inches of manifold pressure is what makes ’em come to life. If you can’t run an Unlimited Gold racer, then Reno loses its appeal for me.”

But some hope that ultimately, the tame L-39s will be superseded by a wilder generation of jets. To match the heady romance of noise and heat and danger with jets would require an Unlimited jet race, with pilots flying on the edge whatever they brought to the course. It’s a compelling proposition, and one that everyone knows would recapture the glory days of cutting-edge air racing. That remains a dream to many who prowl the pits of the air races, a dream that will move one step closer to realization if the first jet races come off without incident. “It’s a possibility,” says Houghton. “It might work,” says Vandam, “but first we’ll have to prove we can come out and fly jets safely.” Whoa, says the FAA’s Clarence Bohartz. “I’ve already got my neck stuck out! That’s way down the road, and for that you’d need a race course that takes up half the U.S.!” Reno, at any rate, seems ready to push the envelope.

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