Reno Air Race

Reno Air Race: Fly low, fly fast, turn left

Arnold Fischer
01.02.2018
4 minutes

So you’ve already climbed Mount Everest a few times and you’re fed up waiting for scheduled flights to the moon? You’ve got a couple million dollars to spare, you’re a bit of a daredevil, and you’re looking for your next challenge? You’ll find it at the annual Reno Air Races in the Nevada desert. There, in addition to the astronauts, test pilots and former fighter pilots, you’ll find the crème de la crème, the aristocracy of the piston-powered propeller fighter aircraft of the last century.

The rules are simple: Fly at a speed of at least 300 mph (555 km/h), stay above the “R” of the vertical RENO signs on the pylons, keep within the narrow boundaries of the circuit, and overtake only on the outside.

The fighter planes, which mainly originate from the 1930s and ’40s, are fast and powerful, even in their original configurations. The tuners modifying these Hawker Sea Furies, Bearcats and Mustangs can coax up to 4,000 PS out of their V-12 Allison or Rolls-Royce engines, producing easily twice the standard performance. This allows the Unlimited Class pilots to fly around the pylons and close to the ground at speeds of up to 500 mph (804.672 km/h). They do this just metres from their competitors – and while experiencing g-forces beyond normally tolerable limits.

The “Unlimited racers” at the Reno Air Races

A standard-equipped “Unlimited racer” also includes various aerodynamic modifications, like flush rivets, a radically chopped cockpit, and a drastically shortened wingspan (which, in turn, results in considerably higher takeoff and approach speeds). In order to do justice to the exorbitant engine power, which requires a specialized air intake, the airframe and engine mounts must also be reinforced to withstand the extreme vibration and dramatic changes in temperature.

Of course, these modifications also go hand in hand with a general reduction in the planes’ handling qualities, meaning that “normal” pilots tend to classify Reno Unlimited racers as unflyable. Whereas pilots during the Second World War painted sharks’ teeth on their front fuselages to give their fighters a particular ferocious appearance, a fully grown tiger shark would probably flee immediately at the mere sight of a Reno Unlimited monster.

The sound produced by these Reno racers is no less diabolical. Comparing it to a mere earthquake would be a colossal understatement. It’s an infernal roar – and it’s instantly addictive for anyone with the smallest drop of jet fuel in their blood.

The history of the Reno Air Races

The sport began in the 1920s and ’30s, when the mostly unemployed pilots of the First World War were looking for something (more or less) productive to do with their time, a novel method of entertaining the public, and a way to earn some money. The Reno Air Races have preserved the historic charm of air racing ever since. Despite attracting around 200,000 spectators over four days, the event’s atmosphere remains convivial, with audience members enjoying up-close encounters with racers and conversing with crew members. The pits are a constant frenzy of activity, as the souped-up warbirds are extremely high maintenance.

Are you still wondering why you need a healthy dose of craziness to take part? The stresses on both pilot and plane are systematically maximized – right to their very limits. In other words, while flying one of these beasts would be some pilots’ wildest dream (and it’s certainly mine), it’s probably not such a good idea. In addition to the extreme aerodynamics, the souped-up technology is sensitive and not as stable as you might wish. (That sound, though…)

The worst-case scenario: engine failure

If, for example, an engine fails because the highly explosive specialised fuel has once again pulverised various piston rings, or a “fatal engine failure” has caused parts of the crankshaft to force their way out through the cowling… well, then, you need a Plan B.

This plan involves rapidly exchanging speed for altitude without colliding with any of your competitors, activating the fire extinguishing system – if there is one –, spending the duration of several adrenaline rushes to manually lower the landing gear using the crank handle (the hydraulics have probably failed), and of course praying that there’s no oil obscuring your front windshield. Then all you need to do is quickly find a nice spot in the desert in which to land your eighty-year-old, aerodynamically questionable, safety-feature-less, malfunctioning projectile.

Then, with a bit of luck and a good wind, you’ll be back in time for next year’s Reno Air Races, awaiting that announcement: “Open the pit lane for the Unlimited Class.”

More about different air races here on WingMag. How about our report about the Red Bull Air Race World Championship 2018 in Dubai? 

by Arnold Fischer

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