Friday goes to Reno to watch aviation aficionados turn the sky into their personal playground.
Forget Formula One – you need to look up if you want to see extraordinary men (and women) flying machines that make Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel look like ‘little boys in go-karts’. Colin Drury catches fireballs, and breathtaking theatrics at the o
At precisely 3.10pm on a Saturday afternoon at the Reno Air Races, there is a huge explosion. When I look out into the distant Nevada desert, there’s a fireball and smoke rising to the sky, and I know enough about aeroplanes to know that’s not a good sign.
Minutes earlier, I had been talking to spectator Sheldon Eggan about how, in 2011, at this very show, a vintage plane being pushed beyond its limits by a 74-year-old pilot had crashed into the grandstand, killing 11 and injuring 69. Sheldon was there and had seen the death and debris.
‘You can’t ever describe something like that and worse, you can’t ever forget it,’ the 59-year-old told me.
Now, for a split second, as the fireball rises, we seem to be witnessing another tragedy. But the crowds in the grandstand erupt into cheers. There’s another distant explosion and fireball, and then a third. The onlookers keep cheering.
Someone walks past, sees my confusion. ‘It’s the Tora, Tora, Tora display,’ he says. ‘They’re re-enacting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. It’s part of the programme.’
A recording of president Franklin D. Roosevelt comes on. He’s declaring this a day of infamy and saying the US has no choice but to enter the Second World War. There’s more whooping from the crowds.
It seems a strange thing to cheer, the start of a conflict in which nearly half a million of your countrymen died. And yet, as the replica Japanese fighter planes swoop past the grandstand for a final fly-by, it’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm. Because up-close, when they’re buzzing past at 300mph, engines roaring, livery gleaming, these aeroplanes – these killing machines – look astonishingly beautiful.
There’s a bright pop art poster at the entrance to the Reno Air Races – officially called the National Championship Air Races – and it echoes this sentiment. Flying, it says, is beautiful. And few here disagree.
A week-long aviation extravaganza, it combines low-altitude circuit air
racing – billed as the world’s fastest motor sport – with a vast exhibition of military and civilian aircraft as well as stunt flights.
Such displays take place in plenty of places – the Pearl Harbour show has been running at different events since 1972. But it’s the racing that’s unique to Reno. This is the only place in the US where it happens.
Similar such events have slowly ceased as organisers shy away from a sport where massive hunks of airborne metal are raced at up to 800kph within metres of each other. At those speeds, the planes are only a split second from collision. When things go wrong or mistakes are made, the results are generally catastrophic. Twenty-one pilots have died here since the races began in 1964.
Perhaps it is the risk that attracts the crowds. There are 150,000 enthusiasts here this year from across the globe. Sheldon, quoted earlier, has flown in from Canada. ‘I’ve met people this week from Russia, the UK, Asia,’ he says. ‘The global aviation community is small and this is a big showpiece so they come from all over. And who can blame them? There’s beautiful weather, incredible pilots, amazing exhibitions.’
It’s partially why Friday has come along too. As Dubai’s own aviation community grows exponentially – a result of being a global air hub and having a population with large disposable incomes – Reno is keen to attract more of us in the future.
My main aim is to find out if the air show is worth your air miles. ‘It absolutely is,’ says Mike Crowell of the Reno Air Race Association. ‘If you enjoy speed, excitement and the idea of planes flying 50ft above the ground in a closed course around pylons, then this is the ultimate event for you.’
Jacques Bothelin isn’t a racing pilot but he’s well acquainted with all the risks and rewards. He’s the founder and leader of the France-based Breitling Jet Team, widely considered the finest professional stunt team in the world. During their displays, seven L-39C Albatros jets fly in ultra-tight formation, performing dazzling series of loops, rolls and splits.
‘At our closest,’ he says, ‘you could almost reach out and shake hands with the guy in the next plane. You have to trust him absolutely not to make even the slightest mistake, otherwise all seven of you are in trouble.’
Today, this team – which includes several one-time French Air Force pilots – is among the most popular in all the stunt shows, and it’s easy to see why. Executing a series of manoeuvres with names like Apache Roll, Ocean Master Wave and Vertical Split, it is both audacious that anyone would try such feats and astonishing that they achieve them. The crowds are in the palm of their wings.
When we meet several hours after the routine, Jacques – who has 11,500 flying hours under his belt – is still visibly fatigued.
‘It takes it out of you every time,’ he says. ‘If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. You have to push yourself to your limits. That’s what makes it a great show.’
Given the dangers, does he ever think about stopping, I wonder.
‘To do what?’ he asks, horrified at the thought. ‘What would I be if I wasn’t this? I’ll tell you what, I’d be depressed.’
Who wins the races probably isn’t too important unless you’re really into aviation (in which case, do please see the box). Suffice it to say, to come out victorious in one of the six classes – T6, Biplane, Formula One, Sport, Jet and Unlimited – is to be feted among your peers. When American Tom Aberle breaks the Biplane class speed record in his plane Phantom by flying at an average of 284.45mph during a qualifying round, he becomes an almost-instant hero.
Yet the real winner is Reno itself. The American city is a small, dusty place famous for being where Johnny Cash sang (falsely) that he shot a man just to watch him die. It’s on the very edge of Nevada, so gambling is legal. It’s essentially a handful of casinos petering out into the desert.
But every year, the air race pumps some Dh250 million into the local economy. ‘It’s a huge shot in the arm for the area,’ says Mike.
You don’t have to like aeroplanes to be drawn to the magnificence of the colourful aircraft tearing about. Safety standards have improved since the 2011 tragedy, but still, the way pilots jostle for first place is either heroically brave or heroically stupid.
‘You have incredible engineering, power, speed and almost superhuman skills from the guys in the cockpit,’ says another spectator, Alan Marsden from California. ‘If you don’t think that makes for a good show, then I’m not sure what your idea of a good show would be. Put it this way: I like Formula One racing but this makes that look like little boys in go-karts.’
Would he travel from Dubai for this, I ask. With a truly American grasp of geography, he says he isn’t sure where Dubai is. ‘But, my friend, yes, I’d travel from anywhere on the planet to here every year for this. There is nothing else like it.’
Reno is UNIQUE - organisers shy away from a sport where HUNKS of airborne METAL are raced at 800mph within metres of each other
John Travolta attends the 2015 Reno Air Races to support the Breitling Jet Team’s debut performance
In 2011, a vintage aircraft crashed into the grandstand at the Reno Air Races