The Reno Air Races

by Sep 14, 2011Air Races, Travel, War Aircraft



No other aviation sporting event presents the ultimate excitement and electricity of the Reno Air Races where the forces of brute engine power, aerodynamically clean airframes, aggressive and skilled pilots press the envelope against the atmospheric and performance limitations of their aircraft as well as the gravitational and physical limitations of the pilots.


The setting for this battle between man/machine and atmospheric/physical limitations is in the dessert which bears more than a casual resemblance to the moon. The setting each morning begins with sunrise and scattered clouds which punctuate the dessert floor with patches of sand colored and dark brown patches of earth that are contrasted to light green, dark green and even yellow, depending on the lighting and color of the sage brush. The surreal appearance of the setting where the drama unfolds is not lost on the pilots or spectators.


On Friday, September 16, 2011, I was standing about 300 yards east of the stadium seating, and the races had just begun. The lead aircraft, Strega (a modified P-51D Mustang) flown by Steven Hinton) had just raced by the home pylon on its third lap with Voodo (another P-51D Mustang flown by Will Whiteside) in hot pursuit. Someone on my left shouted, and as I turned to my left I saw an aircraft plummeting toward the tarmac. The aircraft vaporized before my eyes in an explosion followed by a plume of black fog that traveled upward and outward from the point of impact. About three seconds later, a mist of aviation fuel swept over those of us standing east of the grand stand and the smell of fuel engulfed us. I was relieved there was no fire.

Since Rare Bear (a Grumman F8F Bearcat flown by Stewart Dawson) had been in third place, the initial thought was that Rare Bear had crashed. In fact, it was Jimmy Leeward who was flying a heavily modified P-51D Mustang with race number 177. As the aircraft flew along the southern perimeter of the course, it abruptly pitched up and then climbed. As the aircraft climbed, it began to roll to the right toward the showline. As it became inverted, the nose dropped and the aircraft plummeted earthward crashing directly into the tarmac in or near boxes occupied by spectators.

The crash of Leeward’s highly modified P-51D (the Galloping Ghost) will be investigated thoroughly by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A photograph of the aircraft before impact reveals there was an elevator trim tab that had failed and departed the aircraft. It is more than idle speculation to theorize the failure of the elevator trim tab caused an abrupt pitch up so violent that Leeward lost consciousness. A photograph prior to impact shows the tail (wheel has extended). This suggests the pitch up from the failed trim tab was so violent as to extend the tail wheel due to centrifugal force. If this scenario is accurate, the aircraft was out of control prior to impact.

Besides the photograph of the missing trim tab, a photograph of the aircraft in a vertical position confirms the pilot is nowhere to be seen. The abrupt force of the pitch up caused by the failed trim tab “G-Locked” the pilot rendering him unconscious.

This is not the first time the failure of an elevator trim tab has caused a departure from controlled flight of a P-51D Mustang. The same thing happened in 1996 to a P-51D Mustang called “Voodo Chile,” aircraft race number 5. In the earlier episode however, the pilot recovered consciousness in time to regain control of the aircraft before impact with the ground. In Leeward’s case, however, there was insufficient altitude (time) for him to regain consciousness and take control of his aircraft. In both instances, the violent change in the pitch attitude of the aircraft was so pronounced as to extend the tailwheel of the aircraft due to the “G” locking.


Conceptually, the mechanics of air racing are simple. Aircraft circumnavigate a prescribed course and the first aircraft to cross the finish line is the winner. The length of the course is a known distance, and when the time required to fly the entire course is known, the distance divided by the time yields the aircraft’s speed. The following race course distances apply: (1) Unlimited: 8.4333 miles, (2) Jets: 8.4703 miles, (3) Sport: 6.9992 miles, (4) Sport Gold Race: 8.3742 miles, (5) AT-6 series: 5.0693 miles, and (6) Biplanes: 3.1761 miles.



Any formation pilot hearing an air race briefing would be familiar with the maneuvers and procedures to be executed. For example, as soon as the tail of the airplane in front of you is up, you take off behind him. The pace plane pilot serves as “lead” and the racing contestants form up on him.

The goal of the racing pilots is to effect a “rejoin” on the pace plane or lead. This takes place in the following sequences: (1) loose trail, (2) close trail, (3) echelon right, (4) line abreast to the right of lead. Lead will call “power set” meaning he has set the power of his aircraft for the start of the race. Lead or the pace plan pilot notes if any contestant is “jumping the start” (ahead of the pace plane) or “slingshotting” (being slightly behind but accelerating as the start is approaching). Violators are subject to disqualification. The race starts when the pace plane pulls up and the pole position pilot announces “race start” or the pace plan pilot radios: “Gentlemen, you have a race.”

The aircraft in the pole position has the fastest qualifying time, with the second plane from the pole position having the second fastest qualifying time, etc. The first aircraft crossing the starting line officially starts the race.


The competing aircraft enter the race from a line abreast formation and abruptly transition to fly as closely as permitted to the pylons that outline the race course. This dramatic shift in the relative positions appears to be the time in the race where the potential for mid-air collisions is greatest. Reduced to its essence, the rules have been described as: (1) fly low, (2) fly fast, and (3) turn left.


The racing aircraft are generally flown at between 50 and 350 feet. The minimum altitude at pylons is pylon height. The pilot’s eye level should remain at or above the top of each pylon. The minimum altitude for the home pylon is the “R” in Reno on the face of the pylon. Pylon judges at each turn pylon and the home pylon are responsible for calling low flying violations. The Air Boss or class representative at the Race Control Tower may report low flying violations to the contest committee. Also, the Air Boss has the authority to disqualify any pilot who repeatedly flies below the designated altitudes.


As the aircraft race counterclockwise around the course marked by pylons, the southern perimeter of the flight path of each aircraft is to remain north of the southern edge of Runway 26/8. This is the FAA prescribed showline or crowdline. A showline violation will result in disqualification.

There is an exception to the rule on showline violations. If on approaching the pylon nearest to the beginning of the showline zone, the pilot climbs to as high as 1,500 feet because of conflicting traffic, the pilot may cross the showline. However, he will be penalized two seconds multiplied by the number of laps in that heat for each violation.


An aircraft being overtaken by a faster aircraft is not to impede or interfere with the faster, overtaking aircraft. The overtaking pilot must keep the overtaken aircraft in sight at all times during the pass. An aircraft overtaking a slower aircraft will not pass between the slower aircraft and a pylon and will pass outside of the turn unless the overtaken aircraft is extremely wide and can be kept in sight at all times during the pass by the pilot of the overtaking aircraft.

As an observer of a number of races, there appeared to be aircraft in the race that could gain ground on the straight away before the showline but which could never successfully execute a pass. The overtaking aircraft could get nearly a fuselage length ahead of the slower aircraft. However, as soon as they approached a pylon, the slightly slower aircraft was on the inside of the turn with the slightly faster aircraft was on the outside of the turn. Because the slightly faster aircraft was flying a larger radius than the slightly slower aircraft, it could never successfully execute a pass. If the overtaking aircraft is going to successfully pass a slower aircraft in a turn, it must be demonstrably faster or a pass cannot be accomplished.


Having any part of the aircraft over a pylon constitutes a pylon cut. In the event of a pylon cut, a penalty of two seconds per lap for each lap of the race will be assessed. Protests to the Contest Committee are not permitted for pylon cuts.

An aircraft forced over a pylon or inside a pylon by another aircraft is considered to have been forced to cut the pylon and will not be penalized. However, the pylon judges have the sole discretion to determine whether a pylon cut was forced. If a pylon cut was forced, then the aircraft that was flown illegally is automatically disqualified from the event in which the violation occurred.


Pylon racing at high speeds and low altitude around a closed course in close proximity to other pilots and their aircraft presents a number of unique risks that will be discussed below.


As the racing aircraft break from a line abreast formation to converge on a pylon, the aircraft rapidly are transitioned from a static line abreast formation to an in trail (circular) traffic pattern. The risk of collision at this point in the flight is self-evident.


The combination of high speeds at low altitudes is thrilling to watch. However, it drastically reduces the prospects of a pilot recovering from an unintentional upset of his aircraft. A flight control malfunction, or propwash, or a wingtip vortex that upsets the aircraft at 50 feet may make a successful recovery from the upset or destabilization impossible.


Any formation pilot who has flown in a trail formation and momentarily climbed above the required stepdown of ten feet has experienced the shuddering of his aircraft as it flies in propwash. The forces that must be experienced in flying through the propwash of a Grumman Tigercat with 4,000 horsepower must be dramatic at 50 feet of altitude.


The lift differential between the top of the wing which has a vacuum and the bottom of the wing that has air pressure higher than that on the top creates wingtip vortices. Aircraft flying at in excess of 400 miles per hour and at high angles of attack must be generating very powerful wingtip vortices that have the potential to violently upset aircraft in their wake. While a momentary upset may not be catastrophic at a reasonable altitude, it is easy to appreciate that a violent upset of an aircraft at 50 feet above ground level may put a pilot in a position where he cannot recover control of is aircraft in the space available.


Pylon air racing is an extraordinarily thrilling sport. However, owing to the high speeds and low altitudes at which it takes place, together with the three dimensional aspect of air racing, it presents unique challenges to ensuring the safety of the pilots and (in limited circumstances) the spectators. While it is true the air races take place in surreal circumstances, basic principles of physics and geometry remain in effect. This may require altered or improved procedures if the air races are to continue.

The tragic loss of life at Reno underscores the risks to pilots and spectators. We express our deepest sympathies to all those who suffered loss of life or injuries in the terrible tragedy at Reno.

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