Ninety-degree temperatures, the Blue Angels, and the youngest pilot ever to win the Unlimited Gold race are what most race fans will remember about the 2009 National Championship Air Races & Airshow in Reno, Nevada. But the five days of accident-free racing were memorable also for small moments and a few milestones: California test pilot Dave Morss finished his 200th race, for example, more than any pilot in the history of the races.
If you didn’t make it to Reno this year, take a tour through the pits with the Air & Space staff. That’s where the big Unlimiteds wait for their turns at the pylons, and race team trailers offer some of the best vantage points to watch the action on the course. In this photo, the crew, friends, and family of Miss America watch from the top of the trailer (surrounded by an F4U-4 Corsair, the P-40N Parrothead, and the P-51D Sparky) as the Silver Unlimited airplanes try for the best speeds in a heat race. (Pilots thread a needle during the heats: They need to fly fast enough to earn a forward position for the money race on Sunday, but can’t push the engines so hard that there’s nothing left for the race that counts.) North American T-6 Texans, which compete in their own event, are lined up on the flightline.
See the gallery below for more photos from the 2009 Reno air races.
Miss America, owned and raced by Oklahoma neurosurgeon Brent Hisey, took the trophy in the Unlimited Silver race on Sunday, September 20. A modified 1944 P-51D, Miss America has taken home six trophies since its first race in 1969.
In the pits, crews work on systems and engines right up to the last minute. Miss America’s powerplant is a Packard-built Rolls Royce Merlin V-1650-7, modified to put out 3,000-horsepower. The airplane set a world speed record in 1969, flying from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 6 hours and 21 minutes at an average speed of 412 mph. In his win on Sunday, Miss America pilot Brent Hisey averaged 425.4 mph.
The winning-est Bearcat in race history gets a tow to the runway for Saturday’s heat. Rare Bear (the cover story of the November 2009 issue of Air & Space) brought a new paint scheme, a stirring history, and lots of heart to the Unlimited Gold, but not a race engine. Flying with a stock engine, pilot John Penny wrung an average 479 mph out of the legendary racer, enough speed for second place.
Lucky number 7, Strega, carried away the Unlimited Gold trophy and gave race fans the big story of the week, when 22-year-old Steve Hinton Jr. became the youngest pilot in history to win—a record he stole from his dad, who won the event in 1978 at 26. Young Hinton won handily with an average speed of 491 mph around the eight-lap course, with several laps at over 500 mph.
Steve Hinton Sr. taxis by the stands in the Planes of Fame Lockheed T-33 jet trainer, the Reno pace plane. After the last race on Sunday, Senior was the first to congratulate Junior—in the air with a fist pump from the pace plane cockpit. Hinton took over pace plane duties from H.A. “Bob” Hoover (and his yellow Mustang) in the late 1980s. It’s the pace pilot’s job to lead the pack around the low mountains ringing the airport to give the racers a chance to form up for the race start. During the race, Hinton orbits above the course, on the look-out for an airplane in trouble. If a pilot pulls up, the pace pilot immediately forms up on the wing to look for smoke, check surfaces for oil, or make sure the gear is down. Hinton has talked many a race pilot down to a safe landing after engine trouble.
With loudspeakers blaring Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” race fans, filmmakers, and reporters surround Steve Hinton, Jr. for a victory celebration. The winner has his arm around Strega owner and former race champion Bill “Tiger” Destefani. Though it’s unusual for Mom to be looking on in the Reno Winners Circle (that’s Karen Hinton in the ball cap and white T-shirt), it’s not unusual for a pilot this young to know how to handle a Mustang. As many race fans have pointed out, most warbirds in the Unlimited class were built during World War II to be flown by 19-year-olds.
One of the stars of the Sport Class, Andy Chiavetta, repositions the Lancair Legacy Racer 33. In the Legacy Racer, which Chiavetta built, seven-time Unlimited champ Darryl Greenamyer jump-started the new sport class, open to any production model kit-built aircraft. Beginning in 2000, Greenamyer and crew chief Chiavetta won four consecutive Golds.
Between the races, the performers claim show center. This year, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels appeared with their Lockheed C-130 Fat Albert. Look at the violet flame shooting from the exhaust nozzle of Fat Albert’s Jet Assisted Take-off rockets. (Despite the term JATO, rockets, not jets, supply the extra lift on take-off.) Airshow audiences will see that flame only through the 2009 season; the Navy has only enough JATO canisters left for the shows scheduled this year. Stay tuned for what Navy technicians will devise to get Fat Albert off the ground in a hurry next year.
Even if your airplane doesn’t fly faster than 500 mph, you can still win a trophy at Reno. Aviation celebrities and event sponsors congratulate the winners of the 11th National Aviation Heritage Invitational, a judged competition recognizing aircraft owners for the most historically accurate restoration. Thousands of people strolled among the warbirds, Wacos, and rarities entered in the competition this year. The Heritage Trophy (at right) is inscribed with the names of event grand champions and resides in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
El Cajon, California, businessman Bill Allen took the trophy for the most meticulously restored warbird, a 1940 Ryan STM-2. Allen maintains a small museum packed with vintage aircraft and aviation memorabilia at Gillespie Field, an airport near San Diego. His STM-2 is a product of the company founded by T. Claude Ryan, who built The Spirit of St. Louis for Charles Lindbergh. In 1934, the Ryan Aeronautical Company built a fast little sportplane, the Ryan ST, which later evolved into the STM-2 military trainer.
Richard Rezabek’s 1937 Stinson SR-9F got the attention of the fans as well as the judges. Besides winning the trophy in the Classic category (aircraft built and flown in 1936 or later), the red-and-black Stinson gull-wing Reliant grabbed the most votes in the People’s Choice competition. Maybe it was the Reliant’s elegance that made it so popular, or maybe it was the story that appealed to the fans.
It was originally owned by Katherine May Edwards, who learned to fly after hearing stories of her uncle’s adventures in the Lafayette Escadrille (a group of American pilots who volunteered to fight for France in World War I). Edwards bought the Stinson for $18,000 in 1937, a year when the cost of an average house was about $4,000. At the start of World War II, when the U.S. Army Air Corps impressed civilian aircraft to use as transports and trainers, Katherine Edwards’ luxury Stinson was among them. The Air Corps gave it to Republic Aviation, which sent it to its factory in Evansville, Indiana, where the company built P-47 Thunderbolts. After the war, Republic sold it to one of their test pilots, but Edwards liked her Reliant, and dispatched a representative to buy it back. The test pilot struck a hard bargain. Ms. Edwards ended up paying $30,000 and trading her Fairchild 24, but she got the airplane back again. Rezabek, who worked at Lockheed on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter before he retired in Santa Clarita, California, bought the aircraft in 2004 and says now that he’s flown it, he can understand exactly why Edwards went to so much trouble and expense to get it back.
The Grand Champion of the 11th National Aviation Heritage Invitational is a 1944 North American SNJ-5C, owned and restored by Chuck Wahl of Cameron Park, California. The Navy called them SNJs, the Army Air Force called them T-6 Texans, and the Royal Air Force called them Harvards; by any name, the North American trainer was a workhorse; several hundred thousand pilots in 34 different countries over 25 years prepared for combat by flying the T-6. More than 15,000 were built. (You can watch the progress of Wahl’s five-year project to restore the SNJ by visiting his Web site.)
Some of the rarest aircraft that fly show up at the Heritage Invitational. The only flying 1956 Taylor Aerocar drew crowds all day long, and owner Ed Sweeney seemed never to tire of explaining how its wings detach for road trips. “How does it fly?” one onlooker asked pilot Eric Sweeney, the owner’s son. Eric, who owns Auburn Airplane Works in Auburn, California, answered, “For a car, it flies really well. For an airplane, there are probably others out there ….” That’s a Douglas DC-3 parked in the background, behind the fans dressed in the orange uniform of Section 3, a cheering section where fan is truly and famously short for fanatic.
Dave Hansen’s 1945 Lockheed PV-2 was headed for the Aleutians in World War II but arrived late enough to miss the long bombing runs to the Japanese Kurile Islands. In its postwar career as a cropduster and –sprayer, its gun turret was superfluous, and had been removed. Hansen found and installed a turret, the same type used on Consolidated B-24s.
Inside Looking Out
A new use for the PV-2’s gun turret: Air & Space photo editor Caroline Sheen got this shot of the Navy Blue Angels from the turret of one of the Navy’s best patrol bombers.
Prime Real Estate
There are surely worse things to do on a Sunday afternoon than sit in the shade of a Douglas A-1D Skyraider’s wing to watch the races.