The Art of Air Racing

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The steady sound of the wheels ­hitting the expansion joints in the tarmac at the Reno-Stead Airport outside Reno, Nevada, only intensifies the butterflies flitting in my stomach as I taxi out to Runway 26 for my first solo run in a Lancair Legacy. This is no standard first solo, of course. The winds are 17 knots gusting to 30, about 40 degrees off the runway. I’m taxiing out along four other race planes, ready to take a rip around the pylons that make up the course for the National Championship Air Races.

“Fly low, go fast, turn left” is the mantra. But I’m not racing. I’m flying as part of the Pylon Racing Seminar, a program that takes place each June to train pilots in the art of air racing. Bob Mills, president of the Sport Class, is flying as an observation pilot in the airplane next to me. The pressure is on.

My Reno adventure started at the National Championship Air Races (NCAR) in September 2016. The races had fascinated me since my first visit in 2002, when I went to research an article about Mary Dilda, who at that time raced with great success in the T-6 Class and the newly started Jet Class. I had visited NCAR several times since then, but the 2016 race was my first true introduction to the Sport Class, which was made by David Robinson, an accomplished NCAR race pilot and co-founder of Elite Pilot Services (EPS), a company that provides advanced flight instruction, such as turbine transition, formation and aerobatic flight training, as well as flight-test services.

Robinson and his friend Andy ­Findlay, both of whom race Lancair Legacys, invited me into what they affectionately refer to as the “September family” — a fraternity of pilots and air-race enthusiasts who return to Reno each year to experience the ­excitement at Stead. Robinson and Findlay ­convinced me that the Pylon Racing Seminar (PRS) was the place to be if I wanted to elevate my piloting skills and the fun factor of flight.

The history of PRS is closely related to the Sport Class. In 1997, the NCAR consisted of Unlimited, ­Formula One, T-6 and Biplane classes. Rick Vandam, Jeff Turney and Lee Behel, all race pilots and former F-4 Phantom pilots in the Nevada Air ­National Guard, came up with the idea of a new class centered on experimental a­mateur-built airplanes.

“We wanted to get the manufacturers involved to avoid one-off airplanes from dominating the race,” Vandam says. For an airplane type to qualify in the Sport Class, at least five kits had to have been sold. “One of our plans to get the insurance industry and the FAA to buy into the new Sport Class was to have a training course, and that’s where PRS was hatched,” ­Vandam says. He and Behel were also instrumental in getting the popular Jet Class up and running.

During the past 20 years, PRS has evolved to become a terrific program. The environment is highly structured — basically identical to race week minus all of the spectators and craziness that go along with thousands of people on the field.

While some ground instruction is done with all race pilots in one room, each race class has its own training division. The Sport Class has 14 skilled race instructors and a well-developed program. Rookies are required to have some formation experience prior to coming to Stead and must go through a two-day Formation Warm-Up clinic before they can start the intense PRS training. In order to qualify to race at the NCAR, pilots must obtain a Sport Class race license, valid for two race years.

One of the biggest obstacles to ­getting into the PRS, other than the flying skills, is having a suitable airplane to fly. I was fortunate that Dan Ballin, owner of Sport 92, the airplane Robinson races, was willing to let me borrow his. The plan was for me to go through the course with Robinson in the right seat.

Since I had limited formation-flying experience and no time in a Legacy, Robinson invited me to train in ­Redmond, Oregon, the former headquarters of Lancair International ­before the company was recently sold and relocated to Uvalde, Texas.

After a quick familiarization flight in the Legacy, Robinson put me ­together with Legacy owner and aerobatic pilot Doug Sowder, who also was seeking formation training. Sowder flew with EPS pilot Sean Van Hatten, who, like Robinson, is an NCAR Sport Class-qualified formation instructor as well as an aerobatic competitor and instructor. He and Robinson have ­perfect personality traits for the job: prepared, on time, focused, direct, positive and confidence-inspiring.

Sowder and I learned how to join up in formation, and how to maintain formation in welded wing (aligned at the same angle, as an extension of the lead airplane’s wings), in echelon (where the airplanes are always level with the horizon, even in turns) and in trail (following the track of the airplane ahead and leading or lagging turns to maintain a steady distance). We also practiced cross-unders (moving from one side of the formation to the other). These are all key skills for PRS.

The Sport Class in the National Championship Air Races is bigger than ever. A record 54 pilots showed up for PRS this year, with airplanes cramming the hangar at Stead. Jeff Berlin

Race veteran Kevin Eldredge, who is also based in Redmond, added a third airplane for some of the ­training flights. Flying in formation with the legendary Sport 42 Nemesis NXT Relentless against a backdrop of snowcapped volcanoes west of town will be forever imprinted in a special section of my memory.

Close-formation flight can’t be achieved by simply flying along looking at another airplane. A very precise sight picture is used. These pictures vary from airplane to airplane, but in the Legacy, the vertical stabilizer overlaps the outside wingtip as you form up. If the tail is lined up in front of the wingtip, you’re “sucked” (behind the sight line). If the tail is behind the wingtip, you’re “acute” (ahead of the sight line). Once in welded-wing position, the focus is to keep the inside wingtip aligned with the tip of the spinner. Minute, smooth adjustments in power, pitch, roll and yaw are used to maintain that sight picture.

The complexity of formation flight gave me tunnel vision during my early flights in Oregon. All I could see was a tight circular area around the spinner — one that extended no farther than the windshield. Robinson handled the instrument scan, fuel management and communication. But as I grew more comfortable flying in formation, my field of vision expanded and I was able to increase my workload. After a few days of terrific ground and flight training in Oregon, I felt ready for the PRS challenge.

The two-day Formation Warm-Up clinic, with which Sport Class PRS rookies are required to start the week, is designed to refresh formation skills before having to use them near the ground, around pylons, while attempting to pass other airplanes.

Robinson and Van Hatten served as instructors for some portions of the Formation Warm-Up and PRS ground-school training. But the bulk of the briefings were conducted by Bob Mills, who is an exceptional leader for the Sport Class, having taken over the position after the tragic death of Behel in 2015.

Flying fast around the race pylons at low altitude in close formation with other airplanes may appear insane. But strict procedures and thorough training make it as safe as it can be. Jeff Berlin

Outside of the Formation Warm-Up flights, which were similar to the ­Oregon flights but with more airplanes, I enjoyed two flights that boosted my confidence with low-level flight and helped with the formation and in-trail sight pictures. Findlay brought me along in his Stihl-branded Legacy, complete with clever chain-saw markings painted on the wings, for a four-ship flight that included some exhilarating in-trail work, with big barrel rolls and a low-level track through a canyon near Stead.

I also got to ride in Robin 1 — an L-39 piloted by Phil Fogg, who won the Jet Class in the airplane in 2015. Referred to as “naked flight,” since one jet flown by race pilot and airshow performer Vicky Benzing remains unpainted, the flight consisted of six light jets. The jet pilots formed up and lined up for a mock race around a small lake north of Stead. Getting that “fly low, go fast, turn left” feeling as a passenger the night before I had to fly around the pylons for the first time was priceless.

After two days of Formation Warm-Up and fun flying, my face was ­literally hurting from smiling. But my cheeks got a well-deserved break on Wednesday. Referred to by many as “death by PowerPoint,” this was a full day of ground school, with various representatives from the Reno Air Race ­Association covering flight operations, communications, emergency operations, registration procedures and other mind-numbing information, followed by more Sport Class-related presentations. While somewhat painful, the sessions were imperative.

During PRS and the races in September, the area around Stead airport is covered by TFRs. Race Control, ­consisting of several controllers headed by the air boss, Greg Peairs, more commonly known as “Shifty,” closely manages the airspace. Strict procedures are required for the FAA to waive regulations against flight near other airplanes, below certain altitudes, at speeds above 250 knots below 10,000 feet, aerobatic flight, fuel minimums and more.

Each PRS morning begins with a briefing by Shifty. A mandatory sign-in sheet serves as proof of attendance, and the door literally locks at 8 a.m. Pilots who miss the briefing are not allowed to fly. Anyone whose cellphone goes off in the briefing is fined $20. It’s all about discipline, considered crucial for this extreme type of flying.

A comprehensive briefing is conducted prior to any flight at PRS. Lead pilot and instructor Sean Van Hatten goes over the details of our flight, from start-up to shutdown. Jeff Berlin

Sitting on a solid-wood bench in the briefing room, I was humbled by the thought of the pilots who had gathered there before me — legends such as Bob Hoover, Clay Lacy, Tiger Destefani, Skip Holm, Hoot Gibson, Steve Hinton and Steve Hinton Jr., to name a few.

Once the “Shifty brief” is over, each class gathers separately. With so many pilots in the Sport Class, a record 54 this year, a detailed schedule is put together each day, listing the pilots and instructors (if applicable) for each flight. The course time slots for each flight are only about 15 minutes each, so it’s crucial to be on time.

As with any formation flight, each session is preceded by a detailed briefing in which the lead pilot goes through each step of the flight. In ­addition to start-up, taxi, flight and landing procedures, considerations such as weather, communications frequencies and times are discussed so each pilot in the flight is completely on board with the plan.

With up to nine airplanes in each flight, it is imperative that all pilots pay attention. In several cases, our flights were delayed by communication ­issues. It was often a matter of someone setting the wrong frequency or using the wrong radio. Other times, a pilot would use improper procedures. A simple mistake affects the entire flight and will be thoroughly discussed ­during the debrief after the flight.

Robinson flew with me for the first official PRS flights. One of the flights included the flip-flop (a half roll to inverted followed immediately by an opposite half roll back to level flight) and 4 G turn (two 180-degree turns at a steep bank angle) maneuvers, which are required for the Sport Class race license. I had practiced them in ­Oregon, so they didn’t cause me too much heartache.

During our first turns around the pylons, Robinson pointed out visual references and instructed me to look ahead to the next pylon and start each turn before actually reaching it. I had a tendency to climb, which is a natural reaction when flying at about 100 feet or less above the deck at high speed.

After two days of formation prep and two days of PRS, I took a look at ­Friday’s schedule and found my name in Van Hatten’s morning and afternoon flight. However, the slot for ­instructor next to me was blank. Despite our prior plans, Robinson was ready to let me go alone. It was an experience equally as memorable as my very first solo in a Cessna 152.

Safety equipment such as a helmet, a flight suit and gloves are mandatory for use during any flight in the Pylon Racing Seminar. The stakes are high, so full concentration is required at all times. Jeff Berlin

As the airplane ahead of me nears the 1,000-foot marker on Runway 26, I lean the stick into the strong, gusty wind and push the throttle forward. The IO-550 engine roars as if it’s heading into battle, and I get pushed into my seat as the sleek airframe rolls down the runway. Sport 92 leaps into the air, and I guide it left to fly over the grassy area next to the runway, as ordered by Race Control. The reason for the sidestep is that another group of airplanes is flying the course in the opposite direction between the runway and the home pylon. It looks insane, but it works. The importance of discipline comes to light once again.

As I climb toward the lead ­airplane, Robinson’s words of encouragement ring in my ears. “Don’t get sucked; add power.” Being the number five airplane in the formation is a tough spot. I have to first line up on the lead airplane, then cross under four airplanes to join on the outside. I form up fine on the lead airplane, but, wanting to stay well clear while crossing under, I end up too far back and way outside the formation. In order to catch up, I add full power and pull the ram air knob for an extra boost. As a result, I get acute and have to throw out speedbrakes so as not to lose the position completely. Bob Mills must think I’m a complete dud, I think. OK … forget about that. Focus! We fly out behind Peavine Mountain, where turbulence creates a wave in the formation.

Coming around Peavine, it’s time to set up for the course. Lined up abreast, pointing toward the lighted starting pylon, we’re let go by Van Hatten, and we start the first lap around the Unlimited track before turning toward the line for the Sport Class. I have my eyes on the airplanes beside me while scanning outside for the next pylon. ­Suddenly, the two airplanes next to me pull up and drop behind my field of vision. It’s a split-second decision. Do I pull back too? We were briefed not to pass. But I can’t see them and decide it’s safest to continue my track with ample space to the next airplane. I also make a quick radio call to let the other pilots know my intention.

Part of the brief included staged passes. Van Hatten calls for Sport 114 to pass, then Sport 92. My comfort ­level — or lack thereof — takes me too far to the outside of the turn, and it takes a while for me to pass. My final challenge for this first solo is to demonstrate the most important maneuver of all: the simulated emergency maneuver. I hear Van Hatten’s voice on the radio: “Sport 92, simulated flame out.” I pull my power to idle while pitching up for 120 kias and turning left, then add power to 8 inches, simulating the prop being feathered. I look for the best runway. In this case, it appears to be Runway 14.

While turning base I make the mistake of lowering the gear, incurring a huge drag penalty. The brief called for a go-around once the runway was made, but no lower than 500 feet. My second mistake is busting my 500-foot altitude limit because I want to prove to myself that I’m in a position to land before pushing the throttle forward for the go-around. I barely pass the maneuver, burning in my memory the importance of leaving drag-inducing items such as flaps and gear up until the runway is made.

I climb up for cool-down, approach and landing. On base, I completely overshoot the final approach leg, but I regain control, and my landing is smooth and straight despite the wild winds. The flight was far from perfect. But I shut the Legacy down with the biggest grin of my life.

While the National Championship Air Races are competitive, the first priority is safety. The start of the race is highly structured, and pilots communicate when passing each other on the course. Jeff Berlin

For the afternoon flight, several pilots decide to stay on the ground due to the crazy winds. Fortunately, the Legacy is a terrific crosswind airplane and I feel confident enough to go. Our flight gets an extra 15 minutes on the course. I get the number three slot in the formation, which is a much easier place than the number five position I had just flown.

I slide smoothly up the imaginary line to the lead airplane, cross under and slip right in behind Sport 114. ­Robinson’s imaginary voice says: “That cross-under was textbook!” The turbulence is still strong, but my smile is wide. We turn around Peavine and line up abreast. Then Van Hatten calls, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have a race!”

We dive for the lighted start pylon, and the mock race begins. I pass Sport 114 as briefed, and it feels great. But I want to get the experience of having someone pass me too. I pull a bit of power. Sport 66 passes. Then I push the throttle up again to go hard. I look at the airspeed indicator: 210 kias — right at the redline. I could pull the ram air to give myself an extra boost, but with the turbulence I want to be kind to Ballin’s airplane. I’m not breaking any records, but the feeling of ­driving this beautiful machine around the pylons at Reno is the best adrenaline-induced high I’ve ever experienced.

It took several days for my cheeks to stop hurting from my days in Reno. It also took a while for my brain to digest the experience. With more than 500 sorties completed for the Sport Class alone, the Sport Class management team and Shifty’s Race Control group deserve major kudos. A record 17 rookies got their Sport Class race licenses in June, including myself — something I had not expected when I set out on this adventure. My success was all thanks to the terrific lead pilots and instructors with whom I had a chance to fly; in particular, Robinson and Van Hatten.

While the flying that takes place in Reno can’t honestly be classified as safe, PRS maximizes the safety of racing multiple fast airplanes at low level around a tight course. Race flying requires full discipline, focus and small, smooth, timely control adjustments. As NCAR lead pilot Vince Walker said: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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