Flying Lessons: Tsunami Rises Again?

The drive and passion for Tsunami.

FLY1209_less_1000x674.jpg
Tsunami as it appeared right before its
ill-fated 1989 World Speed Record
attempt and miraculous, four-day rebuild
effort in Wendover, Utah.
Gary Watts

The Greeks would have had a name for it, I imagine. Not quite a full tragedy, because there were moments of greatness. But it's a complex memory that I still can't easily categorize. So when my friend Pat called and asked what should have been a couple of simple questions, I had no easy or adequate words with which to answer.

"Do you remember Tsunami?" she asked.

Remember? How could I ever forget? That plane was the focal point of my life's schedule, the bane of my existence, the ecstasy and the agony, all wrapped up in one. For five years. My name is on a mangled piece of metal that used to be its gear door. Tsunami was the holder and dasher of hopes and dreams; the brilliant invention and the agonizing result of too many chefs; the heir apparent and the tragic also-ran. Right up to the end.

"Yes," I answered simply. "I remember. Why?"

"Well," she answered, "there are some people trying to raise money to rebuild it. So I was wondering what you thought."

"About rebuilding the plane?" I asked.

"Well, yeah, and about the plane itself."

What do I think about Tsunami? How much time do you have?

Tsunami, you see, was a race plane. Like a great racehorse, it was bred specifically for the task; a plane powered by the same Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine as a P-51 Mustang, but with a custom-designed airframe that was about 30 percent smaller, with a completely different airfoil. It was the brainchild of a Minnesota engine builder named Jack Sandberg, who funded it, and the creation of two of the greatest aeronautical racing minds of post-World War II America: Bruce Boland and Pete Law.

Boland and Law were both engineers at the Lockheed Skunk Works. Boland was an aeronautical design engineer; Law was a thermal specialist. They were involved in designing the SR-71 and countless other aircraft (some of which they couldn't talk about), so they knew speed. And their names and fingerprints have been on almost every Unlimited Air Racing champion since the mid-1960s. (Unlimited race planes have only the requirement that they be piston-powered and propeller-driven. Anything else goes.)

So when Sandberg decided he wanted to build an ideal race plane, capable of 500 miles an hour (a speed at which tsunami tidal waves have been clocked, hence the plane's name), he called Boland. In 1986, the year Tsunami debuted, the fastest victory speed at the Reno National Air Races stood at 438 mph. One of Sandberg's goals was to break that record — with an experienced race pilot at the plane's controls. But he also wanted to become the first private pilot to set and hold the 3-km world speed record — which stood, at that time, just one mile short of 500 mph.

Tsunami was an overwhelmingly aluminum airplane, because Bruce said he'd never had a composite component come out lighter than an aluminum counterpart. As for the wing, Bruce used to joke that it was a cross between a T-33 and a U-2. Which I don't think was too far off.

My own involvement with the project dates back to 1986, when I began dating a guy who was working for Steve Hinton. Hinton was the plane's first race pilot, and his shop built the racer. Jim (or "J.D." as he's known in the aviation world), also became Steve's point person when the plane was moved to Sandberg's shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for all its many modifications. So Jim shuttled back and forth between California and Minnesota, sometimes living with the plane on the road for months at a time.

It was, as Dickens would say, the best of times and the worst of times. Those of us who worked on the project were fired up with the knowledge that we were doing something exciting, different, and with such great potential that it might even prove legendary. It was intoxicating and exciting, and the hopes were so high. It was exhausting, as well — I can't even remember how many nights the work lights burned until dawn, and how much family time was lost in the course of the six years Tsunami lived and flew, because there were just too many instances to count. The project was also wrenching, because the plane never, ever reached the promised land.

There were so many "almosts" that it always seemed the struggles would pay off, any day now. But every victory-must-surely-be-at-hand moment would almost invariably be followed by calamity. In 1986, the plane topped 500 mph in test flights, only to have a generator fail at Reno, disabling the cooling pumps and detonating the engine. In 1988, it turned in the fastest heat time anyone had ever clocked at Reno, only to have a 59-cent automatic temperature probe fail in the final race, keeping the plane's cooling systems from kicking in, and relegating the plane to a third-place finish.

In 1989, the plane was running so well that we traipsed out to the salt flats in Wendover, Utah, for Sandberg's attempt on the world speed record. Initial results looked good, but as Sandberg was landing after a practice flight, the gear collapsed, sending the plane careening into the weeds.

The speed record was gone, just like that. And so, it seemed, was a chance at the Reno championship, because the arrival deadline for the races was in four days and the plane was badly damaged. But the four days that followed were, in my mind, the plane and its crew's finest hour, and one of the most powerful examples I've ever witnessed of what a determined group of people can accomplish.

The crew decided it was going to rebuild the airplane and get it to Reno anyway. It was, or should have been, an impossible task. Except that the belief and determination of the crew were contagious. Bystanders and visitors became volunteer crew members. Groups worked, literally, 20 hours a day. The crew chief from the Voyager rebuilt the radiator scoop. Pilots volunteered their airplanes to scour parts from around the country. We survived on baloney sandwiches, sweat, stubbornness and a kind of electric energy that made sleep less important. We worked cheerily and laughed a lot in those four days. After all, we had nothing to lose … and a miracle to gain.

Four days later, a rebuilt Tsunami taxied out to the runway to fly to Reno. True to its mercurial history, its tailwheel then suddenly collapsed — with only a couple of hours until Reno's arrival deadline. The crew swore but then piled out of the chase vehicles, jacked the plane up on a fuel barrel and simply wired the tailwheel down. And when the airplane arrived over the Reno race pits, just minutes shy of the deadline, the crowd below broke into cheers. You don't get many moments like that in a project, or a lifetime.

Of course, we didn't win that year, either. Several hundred horsepower went mysteriously missing, and we couldn't track down why. It wasn't until the following year that Tsunami won its first, and only, race victory at the 1990 Texas Air Races.

So how is it that a plane with such amazing potential — the master work of two of the greatest aeronautical engineering minds in racing; a plane that clearly had the ability to fly faster than anyone else — didn't end up with a wall of trophies and records to show for it? It's a frustration we all still live with.

Some of Tsunami's troubles were pure bad luck, and some were part and parcel of a new, cutting-edge effort. Tsunami was not only the first scratch-built Unlimited racer since the 1930s; it was also a grass-roots effort, without the support of a major manufacturer. That's part of what made the plane so extraordinary, as well as such a difficult challenge.

But some of the setbacks were especially frustrating because they seemed self-inflicted. Every strength has a flip side, as my mother used to say. And the same qualities that led Jack Sandberg to champion the building of a scratch-built, custom racer in the first place — an innovative spirit and mind, and a love of tinkering with and testing new ideas — also made him almost constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone.

The original design was modified many times, and in many ways, and sometimes in several ways at once, making it hard to figure out which of the changes were working well, and always leaving some part of the airplane untested as we went into a race. The wing incidence was changed, and the wing itself moved back nine inches. The tail configuration was altered. Flaps were added and then enlarged. The horizontal was redesigned. The engine angle was changed. Bruce Boland, frustrated with the nonstop changes and tinkering, finally left the program.

And in the end, the inventor's insatiable inventiveness proved his downfall. One of the new flap actuators Sandberg added to the airplane in 1991 broke on approach to Pierre, South Dakota, as he was attempting to ferry the plane back to Minnesota after the Reno races. The plane rolled into the ground, killing Sandberg and ending the program for good.

None of us who lived that plane have easy answers for how we feel about it. It won our hearts and then broke them. But none of us question the importance of what it represented. Few people have the guts to pursue a dream the way Sandberg did. And for all of its frustration and tragedy, Tsunami was a remarkable achievement worthy of its ambitious name; the first modern-era custom Unlimited air racer ever built, and the only one that actually flew as fast as its designers said it would.

Should it be rebuilt? Well, the plane I knew is gone for good. But Tsunami was a beautiful plane and design. And I think it deserves to have its likeness in a museum somewhere, to show visitors what innovative gumption can create, and what a dream looks like when people have the passion and drive to make it real.

For more information on the Tsunami_ rebuild effort, see rebuildtsunami.org._