A first-hand taste of the NCAR Pylon Rac­ing Sem­i­nar train­ing.


Flying - - Contents - By Pia Bergqvist

The steady sound of the wheels hit­ting the ex­pan­sion joints in the tar­mac at the Reno-stead Air­port out­side Reno, Ne­vada, only in­ten­si­fies the but­ter­flies flit­ting in my stom­ach as I taxi out to Run­way 26 for my first solo run in a Lan­cair Legacy. This is no stan­dard first solo, of course. The winds are 17 knots gust­ing to 30, about 40 de­grees off the run­way. I’m taxi­ing out along four other race planes, ready to take a rip around the py­lons that make up the course for the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship Air Races.

“Fly low, go fast, turn left” is the mantra. But I’m not rac­ing. I’m fly­ing as part of the Pylon Rac­ing Sem­i­nar, a pro­gram that takes place each June to train pilots in the art of air rac­ing. Bob Mills, pres­i­dent of the Sport Class, is fly­ing as an ob­ser­va­tion pi­lot in the air­plane next to me. The pres­sure is on.

My Reno ad­ven­ture started at the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship Air Races (NCAR) in Septem­ber 2016. The races had fas­ci­nated me since my first visit in 2002, when I went to re­search an ar­ti­cle about Mary Dilda, who at that time raced with great suc­cess in the T-6 Class and the newly started Jet Class. I had vis­ited NCAR sev­eral times since then, but the 2016 race was my first true in­tro­duc­tion to the Sport Class, which was made by David Robin­son, an ac­com­plished NCAR race pi­lot and co­founder of Elite Pi­lot Ser­vices (EPS), a com­pany that pro­vides ad­vanced flight in­struc­tion, such as tur­bine tran­si­tion, for­ma­tion and aer­o­batic flight train­ing, as well as flight-test ser­vices.

Robin­son and his friend Andy Find­lay, both of whom race Lan­cair Le­ga­cys, in­vited me into what they af­fec­tion­ately re­fer to as the “Septem­ber fam­ily” — a fra­ter­nity of pilots and air-race en­thu­si­asts who re­turn to Reno each year to ex­pe­ri­ence the ex­cite­ment at Stead. Robin­son and Find­lay con­vinced me that the Pylon Rac­ing Sem­i­nar (PRS) was the place to be if I wanted to el­e­vate my pi­lot­ing skills and the fun fac­tor of flight.

The his­tory of PRS is closely re­lated to the Sport Class. In 1997, the NCAR con­sisted of Un­lim­ited, For­mula One, T-6 and Bi­plane classes. Rick Van­dam, Jeff Tur­ney and Lee Be­hel, all race pilots and for­mer F-4 Phan­tom pilots in the Ne­vada Air Na­tional Guard, came up with the idea of a new class cen­tered on ex­per­i­men­tal am­a­teur-built air­planes.

“We wanted to get the man­u­fac­tur­ers in­volved to avoid one-off air­planes from dom­i­nat­ing the race,” Van­dam says. For an air­plane type to qual­ify in the Sport Class, at least five kits had to have been sold. “One of our plans to get the in­sur­ance in­dus­try and the FAA to buy into the new Sport Class was to have a train­ing course, and that’s where PRS was hatched,” Van­dam says. He and Be­hel were also in­stru­men­tal in get­ting the pop­u­lar Jet Class up and run­ning.

Dur­ing the past 20 years, PRS has evolved to be­come a ter­rific pro­gram. The en­vi­ron­ment is highly struc­tured — ba­si­cally iden­ti­cal to race week mi­nus all of the spec­ta­tors and crazi­ness that go along with thou­sands of peo­ple on the field.

While some ground in­struc­tion is done with all race pilots in one room, each race class has its own train­ing di­vi­sion. The Sport Class has 14 skilled race in­struc­tors and a well-de­vel­oped pro­gram. Rook­ies are re­quired to have some for­ma­tion ex­pe­ri­ence prior to com­ing to Stead and must go through a two-day For­ma­tion Warm-up clinic be­fore they can start the in­tense PRS train­ing. In or­der to qual­ify to race at the NCAR, pilots must ob­tain a Sport Class race li­cense, valid for two race years.

One of the big­gest ob­sta­cles to get­ting into the PRS, other than the fly­ing skills, is hav­ing a suit­able air­plane to fly. I was for­tu­nate that Dan Ballin, owner of Sport 92, the air­plane Robin­son races, was will­ing to let me bor­row his. The plan was for me to go through the course with Robin­son in the right seat.

Since I had lim­ited for­ma­tion­fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and no time in a Legacy, Robin­son in­vited me to train in Red­mond, Ore­gon, the for­mer head­quar­ters of Lan­cair In­ter­na­tional be­fore the com­pany was re­cently sold and re­lo­cated to Uvalde, Texas.

Af­ter a quick fa­mil­iar­iza­tion flight in the Legacy, Robin­son put me to­gether with Legacy owner and aer­o­batic pi­lot Doug Sow­der, who also was seek­ing for­ma­tion train­ing. Sow­der flew with EPS pi­lot Sean Van Hat­ten, who, like Robin­son, is an NCAR Sport Classqual­i­fied for­ma­tion in­struc­tor as well as an aer­o­batic com­peti­tor and in­struc­tor. He and Robin­son have per­fect per­son­al­ity traits for the job: pre­pared, on time, fo­cused, di­rect, pos­i­tive and con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing.

Sow­der and I learned how to join up in for­ma­tion, and how to main­tain for­ma­tion in welded wing (aligned at the same an­gle, as an ex­ten­sion of the lead air­plane’s wings), in ech­e­lon (where the air­planes are al­ways level with the hori­zon, even in turns) and in trail (fol­low­ing the track of the air­plane ahead and lead­ing or lag­ging turns to main­tain a steady dis­tance). We also prac­ticed cross-un­ders (mov­ing from one side of the for­ma­tion to the other). These are all key skills for PRS.

Race vet­eran Kevin El­dredge, who is also based in Red­mond, added a third air­plane for some of the train­ing

flights. Fly­ing in for­ma­tion with the leg­endary Sport 42 Neme­sis NXT Re­lent­less against a back­drop of snow­capped vol­ca­noes west of town will be for­ever im­printed in a spe­cial sec­tion of my mem­ory.

Close-for­ma­tion flight can’t be achieved by sim­ply fly­ing along look­ing at an­other air­plane. A very pre­cise sight picture is used. These pictures vary from air­plane to air­plane, but in the Legacy, the ver­ti­cal sta­bi­lizer over­laps the out­side wingtip as you form up. If the tail is lined up in front of the wingtip, you’re “sucked” (be­hind the sight line). If the tail is be­hind the wingtip, you’re “acute” (ahead of the sight line). Once in welded-wing po­si­tion, the fo­cus is to keep the in­side wingtip aligned with the tip of the spin­ner. Minute, smooth ad­just­ments in power, pitch, roll and yaw are used to main­tain that sight picture.

The com­plex­ity of for­ma­tion flight gave me tun­nel vi­sion dur­ing my early flights in Ore­gon. All I could see was a tight cir­cu­lar area around the spin­ner — one that ex­tended no far­ther than the wind­shield. Robin­son han­dled the in­stru­ment scan, fuel man­age­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But as I grew more com­fort­able fly­ing in for­ma­tion, my field of vi­sion ex­panded and I was able to in­crease my work­load. Af­ter a few days of ter­rific ground and flight train­ing in Ore­gon, I felt ready for the PRS chal­lenge.

The two-day For­ma­tion Warm-up clinic, with which Sport Class PRS rook­ies are re­quired to start the week, is de­signed to re­fresh for­ma­tion skills be­fore hav­ing to use them near the ground, around py­lons, while at­tempt­ing to pass other air­planes.

Robin­son and Van Hat­ten served as in­struc­tors for some por­tions of the For­ma­tion Warm-up and PRS ground-school train­ing. But the bulk of the brief­ings were con­ducted by Bob Mills, who is an ex­cep­tional leader for the Sport Class, hav­ing taken over the po­si­tion af­ter the tragic death of Be­hel in 2015.

Out­side of the For­ma­tion Warmup flights, which were sim­i­lar to the Ore­gon flights but with more air­planes, I en­joyed two flights that boosted my con­fi­dence with low-level flight and helped with the for­ma­tion and in-trail sight pictures. Find­lay brought me along in his Stihl-branded Legacy, com­plete with clever chain­saw mark­ings painted on the wings, for a four-ship flight that in­cluded some ex­hil­a­rat­ing in-trail work, with big bar­rel rolls and a low-level track through a canyon near Stead.

I also got to ride in Robin 1 — an L-39 pi­loted by Phil Fogg, who won the Jet Class in the air­plane in 2015. Re­ferred to as “naked flight,” since one jet flown by race pi­lot and air­show per­former Vicky Ben­z­ing re­mains un­painted, the flight con­sisted of six light jets. The jet pilots formed up and lined up for a mock race around a small lake north of Stead. Get­ting that “fly low, go fast, turn left” feel­ing as a pas­sen­ger the night be­fore I had to fly around the py­lons for the first time was priceless.

Af­ter two days of For­ma­tion Warmup and fun fly­ing, my face was lit­er­ally hurt­ing from smil­ing. But my cheeks got a well-de­served break on Wed­nes­day. Re­ferred to by many as “death by Pow­er­point,” this was a full day of ground school, with var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Reno Air Race As­so­ci­a­tion cov­er­ing flight op­er­a­tions, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, emer­gency op­er­a­tions, reg­is­tra­tion pro­ce­dures and other mind-numb­ing in­for­ma­tion, fol­lowed by more Sport Class-re­lated pre­sen­ta­tions. While some­what painful, the ses­sions were im­per­a­tive.

Dur­ing PRS and the races in Septem­ber, the area around Stead air­port is cov­ered by TFRS. Race Con­trol,

Get­ting that “fly low, go fast, turn left” feel­ing as a pas­sen­ger the night be­fore I had to fly around the py­lons for the first time was priceless.

con­sist­ing of sev­eral con­trollers headed by the air boss, Greg Peairs, more com­monly known as “Shifty,” closely man­ages the airspace. Strict pro­ce­dures are re­quired for the FAA to waive reg­u­la­tions against flight near other air­planes, be­low cer­tain al­ti­tudes, at speeds above 250 knots be­low 10,000 feet, aer­o­batic flight, fuel min­i­mums and more.

Each PRS morn­ing be­gins with a brief­ing by Shifty. A manda­tory signin sheet serves as proof of at­ten­dance, and the door lit­er­ally locks at 8 a.m. Pilots who miss the brief­ing are not al­lowed to fly. Any­one whose cell­phone goes off in the brief­ing is fined $20. It’s all about dis­ci­pline, con­sid­ered cru­cial for this ex­treme type of fly­ing.

Sit­ting on a solid-wood bench in the brief­ing room, I was hum­bled by the thought of the pilots who had gath­ered there be­fore me — leg­ends such as Bob Hoover, Clay Lacy, Tiger Deste­fani, Skip Holm, Hoot Gib­son, Steve Hin­ton and Steve Hin­ton Jr., to name a few.

Once the “Shifty brief” is over, each class gath­ers sep­a­rately. With so many pilots in the Sport Class, a record 54 this year, a de­tailed sched­ule is put to­gether each day, list­ing the pilots and in­struc­tors (if ap­pli­ca­ble) for each flight. The course time slots for each flight are only about 15 min­utes each, so it’s cru­cial to be on time.

As with any for­ma­tion flight, each ses­sion is pre­ceded by a de­tailed brief­ing in which the lead pi­lot goes through each step of the flight. In ad­di­tion to start-up, taxi, flight and land­ing pro­ce­dures, con­sid­er­a­tions such as weather, com­mu­ni­ca­tions fre­quen­cies and times are dis­cussed so each pi­lot in the flight is com­pletely on board with the plan.

With up to nine air­planes in each flight, it is im­per­a­tive that all pilots pay at­ten­tion. In sev­eral cases, our flights were de­layed by com­mu­ni­ca­tion is­sues. It was of­ten a mat­ter of some­one set­ting the wrong fre­quency or us­ing the wrong ra­dio. Other times, a pi­lot would use im­proper pro­ce­dures. A sim­ple mis­take af­fects the en­tire flight and will be thor­oughly dis­cussed dur­ing the de­brief af­ter the flight.

Robin­son flew with me for the first of­fi­cial PRS flights. One of the flights in­cluded the flip-flop (a half roll to in­verted fol­lowed im­me­di­ately by an op­po­site half roll back to level flight) and 4 G turn (two 180-de­gree turns at a steep bank an­gle) ma­neu­vers, which are re­quired for the Sport Class race li­cense. I had prac­ticed them in Ore­gon, so they didn’t cause me too much heartache.

Dur­ing our first turns around the py­lons, Robin­son pointed out vis­ual ref­er­ences and in­structed me to look ahead to the next pylon and start each turn be­fore ac­tu­ally reach­ing it. I had a ten­dency to climb, which is a nat­u­ral re­ac­tion when fly­ing at about 100 feet or less above the deck at high speed.

Af­ter two days of for­ma­tion prep and two days of PRS, I took a look at Fri­day’s sched­ule and found my name in Van Hat­ten’s morn­ing and af­ter­noon flight. How­ever, the slot for in­struc­tor next to me was blank. De­spite our prior plans, Robin­son was ready to let me go alone. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence equally as mem­o­rable as my very first solo in a Cessna 152.

As the air­plane ahead of me nears the 1,000-foot marker on Run­way 26, I lean the stick into the strong, gusty wind and push the throt­tle for­ward. The IO-550 en­gine roars as if it’s head­ing into bat­tle, and I get pushed into my seat as the sleek airframe rolls down the run­way. Sport 92 leaps into the air, and I guide it left to fly over the grassy area next to the run­way, as or­dered by Race Con­trol. The rea­son for the side­step is that an­other group of air­planes is fly­ing the course in the op­po­site di­rec­tion be­tween the run­way and the home pylon. It looks in­sane, but it works. The im­por­tance of dis­ci­pline comes to light once again.

As I climb to­ward the lead air­plane, Robin­son’s words of en­cour­age­ment ring in my ears. “Don’t get sucked; add power.” Be­ing the num­ber five air­plane in the for­ma­tion is a tough spot. I have to first line up on the lead air­plane, then cross un­der four air­planes to join on the out­side. I form up fine on the lead air­plane, but, want­ing to stay well clear while cross­ing un­der, I end up too far back and way out­side the for­ma­tion.

In or­der to catch up, I add full power and pull the ram air knob for an ex­tra boost. As a re­sult, I get acute and have to throw out speed­brakes so as not to lose the po­si­tion com­pletely.

Bob Mills must think I’m a com­plete dud, I think. OK … for­get about that. Fo­cus! We fly out be­hind Peav­ine Moun­tain, where tur­bu­lence cre­ates a wave in the for­ma­tion.

Com­ing around Peav­ine, it’s time to set up for the course. Lined up abreast, point­ing to­ward the lighted start­ing pylon, we’re let go by Van Hat­ten, and we start the first lap around the Un­lim­ited track be­fore turn­ing to­ward the line for the Sport Class. I have my eyes on the air­planes be­side me while scan­ning out­side for the next pylon. Sud­denly, the two air­planes next to me pull up and drop be­hind my field of vi­sion. It’s a split-se­cond de­ci­sion. Do I pull back too? We were briefed not to pass. But I can’t see them and de­cide it’s safest to con­tinue my track with am­ple space to the next air­plane. I also make a quick ra­dio call to let the other pilots know my in­ten­tion.

Part of the brief in­cluded staged passes. Van Hat­ten calls for Sport 114 to pass, then Sport 92. My com­fort level — or lack thereof — takes me too far to the out­side of the turn, and it takes a while for me to pass. My fi­nal chal­lenge for this first solo is to demon­strate the most im­por­tant ma­neu­ver of all: the sim­u­lated emer­gency ma­neu­ver. I hear Van Hat­ten’s voice on the ra­dio: “Sport 92, sim­u­lated flame out.” I pull my power to idle while pitch­ing up for 120 kias and turn­ing left, then add power to 8 inches, sim­u­lat­ing the prop be­ing feath­ered. I look for the best run­way. In this case, it ap­pears to be Run­way 14.

While turn­ing base I make the mis­take of low­er­ing the gear, in­cur­ring a huge drag penalty. The brief called for a go-around once the run­way was made, but no lower than 500 feet. My se­cond mis­take is bust­ing my 500-foot alti­tude limit be­cause I want to prove to my­self that I’m in a po­si­tion to land be­fore push­ing the throt­tle for­ward for the go-around. I barely pass the ma­neu­ver, burn­ing in my mem­ory the im­por­tance of leav­ing drag-in­duc­ing items such as flaps and gear up un­til the run­way is made.

I climb up for cool-down, ap­proach and land­ing. On base, I com­pletely over­shoot the fi­nal ap­proach leg, but I re­gain con­trol, and my land­ing is smooth and straight de­spite the wild winds. The flight was far from per­fect. But I shut the Legacy down with the big­gest grin of my life.

For the af­ter­noon flight, sev­eral pilots de­cide to stay on the ground due to the crazy winds. For­tu­nately, the Legacy is a ter­rific cross­wind air­plane and I feel con­fi­dent enough to go. Our flight gets an ex­tra 15 min­utes on the course. I get the num­ber three slot in the for­ma­tion, which is a much eas­ier place than the num­ber five po­si­tion I had just flown.

I slide smoothly up the imag­i­nary line to the lead air­plane, cross un­der and slip right in be­hind Sport 114. Robin­son’s imag­i­nary voice says: “That cross-un­der was text­book!” The tur­bu­lence is still strong, but my smile is wide. We turn around Peav­ine and line up abreast. Then Van Hat­ten calls, “Ladies and gen­tle­men, you have a race!”

We dive for the lighted start pylon, and the mock race be­gins. I pass Sport 114 as briefed, and it feels great. But I want to get the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing some­one pass me too. I pull a bit of power. Sport 66 passes. Then I push the throt­tle up again to go hard. I look at the air­speed in­di­ca­tor: 210 kias — right at the red­line. I could pull the ram air to give my­self an ex­tra boost, but with the tur­bu­lence I want to be kind to Ballin’s air­plane. I’m not break­ing any records, but the feel­ing of driv­ing this beau­ti­ful ma­chine around the py­lons at Reno is the best adren­a­line-in­duced high I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced.

It took sev­eral days for my cheeks to stop hurt­ing from my days in Reno. It also took a while for my brain to di­gest the ex­pe­ri­ence. With more than 500 sor­ties com­pleted for the Sport Class alone, the Sport Class man­age­ment team and Shifty’s Race Con­trol group de­serve ma­jor ku­dos. A record 17 rook­ies got their Sport Class race licenses in June, in­clud­ing my­self — some­thing I had not ex­pected when I set out on this ad­ven­ture. My suc­cess was all thanks to the ter­rific lead pilots and in­struc­tors with whom I had a chance to fly; in par­tic­u­lar, Robin­son and Van Hat­ten.

While the fly­ing that takes place in Reno can’t hon­estly be clas­si­fied as safe, PRS max­i­mizes the safety of rac­ing mul­ti­ple fast air­planes at low level around a tight course. Race fly­ing re­quires full dis­ci­pline, fo­cus and small, smooth, timely con­trol ad­just­ments. As NCAR lead pi­lot Vince Walker said: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

The flight was far from per­fect. But I shut the Legacy down with the big­gest grin of my life.

1. Good for­ma­tion skills put pilots on a steady imag­i­nary line from the lead air­plane. But it’s easy to get “sucked” or “acute.”

1. While the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship Air Races are com­pet­i­tive, the first pri­or­ity is safety. The start of the race is highly struc­tured, and pilots com­mu­ni­cate when pass­ing each other on the course.

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