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

Friday - - Contents -

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

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