Taking Wing: Rookie of the Year

Joe before the start of day two at the Reno Air Races. Courtesy Sam Weigel

The six-cylinder, 310-hp Continental growls and pops as I line up on Runway 7L then builds to a throaty roar as I open the throttle. I feed it in slowly, just like Joe told me to, in order to keep this Lancair with its castoring nosewheel, tiny tail and monstrous torque pointed straight down the runway. But around the time I figure I’m at full throttle, I discover I have another inch to “firewall power,” and when I get there, the ­acceleration becomes gut-wrenching. We’re up to 85 knots in no time at all. I ease back on the stick, and we leap into the dry desert air. This is my first time flying an airplane that has the power and speed to compete in the famed Reno Air Races in Nevada, and even in this bone-stock Lancair Legacy, it’s a bit like having a tiger by the tail.

My friend, Joe Coraggio, is in the left seat. We’ve known each other since we both flew the Embraer 175 for Compass Airlines, where Joe, a check airman, was assigned to give me my annual line check. We hit it off over two short legs, and a few days later, I flew over to Fleming Field in Minnesota to take a look at the Long-EZ project Joe was building in his garage. Over the next couple years, Dawn and I came to be good friends with Joe and his husband, Kevin Vernon-Harris; they’re friendly, generous people with an infectious enthusiasm for life in general and sport aviation in particular. I helped out on the Long-EZ build a few times; we flew together in my Cub and Pacer and a friend’s RV-7; Dawn and I camped with Joe and Kevin at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; and Joe introduced me to many of his seemingly endless pool of friends and acquaintances in the experimental, warbird, airshow and ­racing corners of aviation.

One of these is Eric Whyte, with whom Joe co-chairs the annual AirVenture Cup Race. Like Joe and me, Eric is a professional pilot who has been flying since his early teens, and in fact, it was Eric who gave Joe his first Young Eagles flight in 1995 and, subsequently, mentored him as he began flight training. Joe recalls, in those days, he hung around the airport so much that the other pilots started calling him “Ramp Rat,” a nickname that stuck. Both mentor and mentee have done a great deal to carry on the program that gave them and so many other young aviators their start; in 2017, Eric was the recipient of the Phillips 66 EAA Young Eagles Leadership Award, and Joe was the honoree the following year.

One cold winter evening in Joe’s basement, he and I got to talking about the AirVenture Cup Race, which takes place the weekend before Oshkosh and ends in nearby Wausau, Wisconsin. Joe made it sound so fun that, a few tasty IPAs later, we had cooked up a harebrained scheme to “race” my flying club’s 70-mph Piper Cub at the next AirVenture Cup. It was a great lark that made for a good shaggy-dog tale (“The World’s Fastest Cub,” December 2014), and the following year, Dawn and I raced our own Piper Pacer. At both races, I really enjoyed getting to know Joe and Eric better, along with their many racing friends—­several of whom also ­compete at Reno—and another ­highlight was ­flying dozens of Young Eagles on the Saturdays before the race.

Over the past five years, Joe and I were hired at two different major airlines. He and Kevin moved to Phoenix to be near his base, and Joe ­finished his highly modified Long-EZ, ­nicknamed “Betty.” Joe’s ­intention was always to make Betty a ­racing machine, and with that aim, he had incorporated quite a few ­aerodynamic mods and a ­200-plus hp Lycoming IO-360 swinging a three-blade ­composite propeller. She was fast but not quite as fast as Joe hoped, so he continued to modify her with the dream of racing her at Reno. When I visited on a Phoenix overnight in spring 2016, Joe expressed frustration at the slow pace of progress but still hoped to be able to take Betty to Reno that fall. Shortly ­thereafter, an exhaust ­modification suffered an unexpected failure mode that grounded Betty for more than a year.

Improving every run, Joe moved from a qualifying speed of 274.4 mph to 280.7 mph. K G Eccles

“In retrospect, it was just pride that made me want to race the airplane I built,” Joe says now. “It took me a while to realize it was just the wrong airplane for the job. Even if got all the speed I wanted to get out of it, I would have been clinging to the very bottom of the Sport Class.” Some explanation is required here. The Stihl National Championship Air Races—as the Reno Air Races are officially known—has six classes including Jet, Unlimited, Biplane, T6, Sport and Formula One. The Sport Class is limited to 36 pilots (eight each in Gold, Silver, Bronze and Medallion subclasses, plus two alternates), and in 2019, all Sport Class racers but one qualified at 230 mph or faster. Joe was struggling to get Betty much over 220 mph.

In 2018, Joe learned that Reno ­staple Andy Findlay—who has ­dominated the Sport Class for ­several years with his highly ­modified, ­400-mph Lancair Super Legacy, One Moment—also had a stock ­normally aspirated Legacy he was willing to part with. With Lancairs and Glasair IIIs forming the backbone of the Silver and Gold Sport classes, it was the right airplane for the job. Joe and Andy made a deal, and Ramp Rat Racing was born. Shortly thereafter, Joe partnered with BendixKing, and they replaced Joe’s somewhat-tired first-generation glass panel with a beautiful, state-of-the-art layout built around their xVue Touch, AeroNav and AeroFlight products. Several of Joe’s EAA friends serve as his volunteer crew, Kevin handles the business side as team manager, and well-known homebuilder and AirVenture Cup ­regular Dick Keys is about as capable a crew chief as one could ask for.

Pylon racing taxes and hones a pilot’s stick-and-rudder skills like few other aerial pursuits. The Sport Class course at Reno is just under 8 miles long and defined by nine pylons strung across the Reno-Stead Airport and the adjacent desert plateau. The pylons themselves are 50 feet tall and denote the minimum race altitude, above which the racers seldom stray. Flying the course solo would be challenging enough, but it is all done in close proximity to up to seven other airplanes in any given heat. (Basically, flying formation on a lead who doesn’t really want you there and who you are trying to pass.) It is a credit to the pilots involved and the race ­organization that Reno is as safe as it is.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

In order to race at Reno, Joe was first required to attend the Pylon Racing Seminar, held in Reno each June. Good formation skills are a hard prerequisite, with a Formation Flying Inc. (FFI) or Formation and Safety Training (FAST) card required in most cases. The four-day course ­consists of classroom training, ­formation ­exercises, familiarization laps and practice racing. A strong emphasis is put on contingency procedures, such as engine failure and crowd-line escape maneuvers. It was an ­intensive week, but Joe kept improving and was awarded a Sport Class ­race-pilot certificate following the successful ­completion of his check ride.

“One of the things that kept me from coming to Reno sooner was this perception that all the racers are these superpilots,” Joe tells me. “And so there was a lot of fear—of the unknown, of whether I could measure up, for personal safety. I’ll tell you, it was scary coming down the chute onto the course at PRS the first time. At Reno, I always have the energy to make a runway in case of engine failure, for example.” He gestures to the surrounding mountains and desert. “That’s not true most of the time. Most of the time, I’m flying around here.”

Joe posing with his BendixKing-revamped ride. Courtesy Sam Weigel

Experienced and well-funded racing teams do a great deal to eke every bit of performance out of their airplanes. For rookies like Joe, speed comes mostly with experience and learning. This was seen over the course of race week at Reno: Joe ­qualified at 274.4 mph, which put him in Sport Bronze Class, but then he finished in first place in his first heat and was moved up to Silver Class. His speed improved until he recorded 280.7 mph in the last heat, and in the Sport Silver final, he took sixth place—which is 14th out of 36 ­overall. “At the start of the week, I was so ­task-saturated, it was like ­tunnel vision down to here,” Joe says, ­forming a small circle on the windscreen with his hands. “But later in the week the tunnel expanded, and I was able to keep other things in my scan—like engine instruments. In ­recognition of Joe’s impressive debut, he was named the Sport Class Rookie of the Year.

I ask Joe if he has any plans to ­modify the Lancair for next year. “Well, one obvious thing to do would be to increase engine power by running nitrous oxide,” he says. “But that’s one more thing to manage, and I’d have to keep a closer eye on engine instruments. It goes back to expanding that tunnel vision.” Another option would be aerodynamic ­modifications. It turns out that the ­slick-looking Lancair suffers a good deal of form drag from the abrupt ­narrowing of its aft fuselage, and repairing that area yields around 10 mph, while strengthening the tail would afford an increase in VNE. As with most things in aviation, it comes down to money. Joe has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with BendixKing, and is hoping to sign one or two other sponsorship deals with the goal of making the plane more competitive within the Sport Silver Class.

The Legacy is a wonderfully responsive airplane, if a bit sensitive in pitch. We play around in the practice area as long as we can until the setting sun forces a turn back to Joe’s home airport. At reduced power of 21 inches of manifold pressure and 2,400 rpm, we’re “only” doing 215 knots true—which is still the fastest I’ve gone in a single-engine piston airplane. Joe talks me through a remarkably jetlike final approach and landing; final approach speed is 100 knots. It’s great to have friends with cool airplanes. As we push the Lancair back into the hangar, Joe tells me his desire to race at Reno was sparked, ironically, by Sport Class founder and AirVenture Cup ­regular Lee Behel’s fatal crash while qualifying at Reno in 2014. The crash itself wasn’t the spark, Joe explains; it was Lee’s explanation of his love of ­racing that was read at his funeral.

“We are here because we absolutely love flying and the fraternity of pilots within this group. We want to live as competitors, not spectators.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, flying the Lancair has put me in rather the racing mood myself. I have to go find myself a suitably sexy and speedy ride before the 2020 AirVenture Cup.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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