Drama High as Unlimited Heats at Final Reno Air Races Gain Intensity

Fans lament engine failure of ‘Dreadnought’ and the potential cakewalk for ‘Bardahl Special’ in its wake.

The Hawker Sea Fury, ‘Dreadnought’. [Credit: Jonathan Welsh]

When someone asks for a basic rundown of what the annual National Championship Air Races are, I start with the facts. It is a weeklong event in Reno, Sunday to Sunday, during which pilots race specialized aircraft around courses in the Nevada desert marked with pylons.

While essentially accurate, this description fails in my opinion because it makes the event sound regimented, predictable, and perhaps even a bit boring, which it is not.

An analogy that works better, especially for nonaviation folks, is an old-fashioned soap opera with a generous dash of the action adventure genre. A cast of characters including pilots, mechanics, officials, sponsors, and spouses mixes with an unbelievable collection of meticulously cultivated horsepower. The result is a unique chorus of engines, power tools, and raised voices.

Workers open hatches and crawl deep inside fuselages to work on hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Their voices echo as they shout for tools. Colleagues run back and forth between the airplane and support trailer, searching for this wrench or that screwdriver. A spool of safety wire occasionally gets loose and rolls across the ramp.  

One thing that makes the Reno races special is that the machines rarely manage to overshadow the people, though they try. Earlier this week, a Hawker Sea Fury named Dreadnought, a big, beautiful Unlimited racer that has competed here for decades, suffered an engine failure during a qualifying run at well over 400 mph (I have never heard “knots” mentioned in reference to Reno—a nod to its motorsports history).

Talk about drama. Pilot Joel Swager raised the nose, quickly trading airspeed for altitude as Dreadnought’s huge Pratt & Whitney 4360 radial uttered awful, explosive sounds before going silent. Pilots who race at Reno train for this type of emergency, but a deadstick landing in any World War II-era fighter that has been modified for racing is a difficult endeavor. Swager was cool, making the landing look easy, or at least routine. A lot of video sharing went on after the incident.

It is unclear whether the Sea Fury can be made airworthy again in time to return to the competition. There have been cases of last-minute repairs and overnight engine overhauls performed on the tarmac at Reno/Stead Airport (KRTS), but the word in the pits Wednesday was that Dreadnought was out of the event.

A lot of people will miss that aircraft because they are accustomed to its presence as a reliable strong runner. This year many saw Dreadnought as perhaps the only serious challenger to the Bardahl Special, a P-51 Mustang owned and flown by late racing legend Chuck Lyford. Lyford and the Bardahl airplane were fixtures for many years after the Reno races got going in the mid-1960s, and the aircraft returned last year after a long absence. Following major upgrades during the past year, and with Reno whiz Steven Hinton at the controls, it is favored to win Sunday’s Gold Race.

Anything can happen in racing, though, and there are several Unlimited heats to come before the final. So much can happen between now and Sunday. And the Unlimiteds are but one theme in the broad Reno saga. The other classes, from Formula One to Jets, will also see aircraft tweaked, revised, and rebuilt, often by swarms of volunteer technicians who will put them back together and button up the access panels just in time to taxi for the next race.

As for the Unlimiteds, their heat races begin Thursday afternoon.

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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