It was a wild year at the Reno Air Races. We climbed aboard the pace plane for an up-close look at all the heart-pound­ing ac­tion. By Pia Bergqvist

It’s the fi­nal Gold race for the Sport Class at the Stihl Na­tional Cham­pi­onship Air Races out­side Reno, Ne­vada. I’m in an Aero Vodochody L-39 Al­ba­tros, mak­ing cir­cles at 8,500 feet above the Reno-Stead Air­port, watch­ing as a group of eight Lan­cair Lega­cies, Su­per Gla­sairs and Thun­der Mus­tangs bat­tles it out at high speeds around the py­lons. At the con­trols of the L-39 is Mark “Magic” John­son, a for­mer U.S. Air Force pi­lot and cur­rent USAF Re­serve pi­lot who flies pace for the Sport Sil­ver and Gold heats. It’s a per­fect day for rac­ing, with clear skies and winds as gen­tle as they get in this high desert land­scape.

Pi­lot and builder Jeff LaVelle, who has been dom­i­nat­ing the Sport Class in his souped-up Su­per Gla­sair III, Race 39, lost the pole po­si­tion for the fi­nal heat to Andy Findlay in Race 30, also known as One Mo­ment, in a thrilling race on Satur­day af­ter­noon. For this fi­nal race, LaVelle is push­ing Race 39 as hard as he can to catch Findlay, who is clock­ing the course at an av­er­age speed of more than 400 mph. On the fi­nal lap, in what’s called the Val­ley of Speed — the area just be­fore the fi­nal turn to the home py­lon — I watch in hor­ror as a fat trail of smoke ap­pears be­hind one of the air­planes on the course. Magic calls out “smoke” and points the light jet to­ward the ail­ing air­plane.

Like any Reno race day, the day started early in “the room of long benches” tucked in the back of one of the large hangars on the west side of the field. This is where the morn­ing brief­ing is con­ducted by NCAR air boss Greg “Shifty” Peairs. The “Shifty brief” for the Sport and T-6 classes hap­pens at 7:30 a.m. sharp. The door locks at that time, and each pi­lot must sign a log to prove they were there. A missed Shifty brief means no fly­ing for the day. Crit­i­cal is­sues are dis­cussed, such as what went right and what went wrong the pre­vi­ous day, what can be im­proved, safety con­sid­er­a­tions, weather, sched­ule and more.

Like the rac­ers, pace pilots have to at­tend the brief­ings and com­plete the Py­lon Rac­ing School, which takes place at Stead Field in June, to learn the pro­ce­dures for the races and the spe­cific pace-pi­lot du­ties. Those du­ties are nu­mer­ous. One im­por­tant task is keep­ing on sched­ule. Pace con­ducts a sep­a­rate brief­ing for each heat to pro­vide the race pilots with spe­cific times for when to meet at the air­planes, start the en­gines, taxi to the run­way, take off, en­ter the race­course and land. Other de­tails, such as the speeds for dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the flight, are also cov­ered.

Dur­ing the taxi phase and lineup for take­off, pace ob­serves the air­planes to make sure they are con­fig­ured prop­erly, the doors are closed, and none of them are drip­ping flu­ids, have flat tires or ap­pear to suf­fer any other is­sues. The only ground is­sue Magic and I found dur­ing the 2018 races was a flat tire on Mathias Haid’s Thun­der Mus­tang, Race 151. For­tu­nately, the is­sue hap­pened on Fri­day, and Haid was able to fly both Satur­day and Sun­day.

Af­ter take­off, the air­planes form up on the pace air­plane and the group flies around Peav­ine Moun­tain. It’s the pace pi­lot’s job to di­rect them and bring them into a straight start­ing line in the chute be­fore call­ing out, “Ladies and gen­tle­men, you have a race!” Ladies? Yes, we did in­deed have some very ac­com­plished women in the Sport heats: Chi­wami Tak­agi-Read, Jessy Panzer and Vicky Ben­z­ing, who is gen­er­ally com­pet­i­tive in the Sport Gold but was not able to fly her faster Legacy this year, put­ting her in the Sil­ver heat with Race 15, Lucky Girl. Ben­z­ing is also one of


the top rac­ers in the Jet Class in Race 15, an L-39 named Dark­star II.

Once the rac­ers are on the course, the pace pi­lot mon­i­tors the race from above and alerts the race pilots if some­thing looks wrong. If a may­day oc­curs, which is com­mon in the fi­nal heats since the pilots push the en­gines way past the de­sign lim­its, in some cases be­yond 80 inches of MP, pace is there to help in any way pos­si­ble. It can be a very busy job, and it is help­ful for the pace pi­lot to have an observer as a sec­ond set of eyes in the cock­pit.

While not in the same class as the sport air­planes, the L-39 is a ter­rific pace plat­form with great speeds to keep up with the rac­ers; good ma­neu­ver­abil­ity with a G-limit range from -4 to +8; sim­ple, re­li­able sys­tems that al­low for mo­men­tary in­verted flight; stel­lar vis­i­bil­ity with a full glass canopy; and air con­di­tion­ing for com­fort. An­other ben­e­fit is that it takes no more than a cou­ple of min­utes to fire up the jet and get it ready for take­off.

Phoenix, the L-39 I had a chance to fly in dur­ing the races in Reno, is owned by Ed Noel, from Hous­ton. The air­plane was im­mac­u­lately re­stored by the jet war­bird experts at Min­hJet in Hol­lis­ter, Cal­i­for­nia. For its ef­forts, Min­hJet won the Gold Wrench and Noel the Grand Cham­pion award for post-World War II air­planes at the 2012 EAA AirVen­ture in Oshkosh, Wis­con­sin. Phoenix is still ex­quis­ite in­side and out, un­like many vin­tage war­birds I have flown.

Min­hJet’s owner, Minh Ve­na­tor, acts as the ramp boss for the Jet Class and has been in charge of the ramp since the Jet Class started in 2000. Un­like all the other air­craft pits, which are fenced off on the west side of the air­port and re­quire an ad­di­tional ticket, the jet pits are gov­erned by Rac­ing Jets In­cor­po­rated and are open to all spec­ta­tors with­out an ad­di­tional fee. The jet area is on the east side of Stead Field, pre­sent­ing an ad­di­tional chal­lenge for the Sport pace pi­lot who has to travel nearly the length of the en­tire run­way be­tween heats.

Safety equip­ment, such as flight suits,

gloves and hel­mets, is re­quired for race and pace pilots alike. Stephen Pen­ning­ton helped get the jet, Magic and me ready for each flight, which was very help­ful. A good comm sys­tem in the hel­met is a must. I had a chance to bor­row a Lift Avi­a­tion hel­met with a Light­speed noise­can­cel­ing comm sys­tem, which worked great. I have flown in old war­birds with me­diocre hel­mets and head­sets be­fore, and it can be very frus­trat­ing when you can’t hear or com­mu­ni­cate clearly.

Some rac­ers ap­peared to have comm prob­lems as they con­sis­tently had trou­ble check­ing in on the fre­quency be­fore take­off.

This prompted sev­eral re­minders dur­ing Magic’s pre­flight brief­ings to stay on top of the comm pro­ce­dures. Dur­ing one of the first flights, one of the pilots called “smoke” dur­ing the re­join, which of course got ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion. What he meant was for the pace plane to turn smoke on to make it more vis­i­ble. Our next brief in­cluded a dis­cus­sion on how bet­ter to com­mu­ni­cate the need for smoke.

The pilots also give feed­back to pace. Dur­ing the first cou­ple of runs, Magic kept the speed as briefed, but the power was too high, which meant the rac­ers had dif­fi­cul­ties catch­ing us in the climb. With a lower power set­ting on sub­se­quent flights, the re­joins were much more ef­fi­cient.

The types of pace planes for each class vary, but are gen­er­ally sim­i­lar to the race air­planes. The Sport Sil­ver and Gold rac­ers are fast enough that they use an L-39. The Un­lim­it­eds are paced by a Lock­heed T-33 flown by Steve Hin­ton, a for­mer racer and pres­i­dent of the Planes of Fame Mu­seum in Chino, Cal­i­for­nia. The Jets are brought to the chute by an Em­braer Phe­nom 300 flown by Jay Ober­nolte. While its speed lim­its are well within the bound­aries of safely bring­ing the air­planes to the chute, it is not as ma­neu­ver­able as an L-39, and it wouldn’t be able to quickly form up on an ail­ing air­plane. May­days are not as com­mon in the Jet Class; the en­gines have fewer prob­lems than the pro­peller­driven ones. How­ever, in each heat, one race air­plane and a backup are des­ig­nated as the chase planes.

This year, the des­ig­nated chase pi­lot in Fri­day’s Sil­ver heat in the Jet Class was pre­sented with an in­tense emer­gency dur­ing the last lap as two L-39s col­lided: Re­al­ity Czech, flown by Nathan Har­nagel, and Race 37, flown by Brazil­ian Alexan­dre Eck­mann.

Jeff Tur­ney, who acted as safety pi­lot in Robin 1 — also an L-39 — flew for sev­eral min­utes on the wing of Re­al­ity

Czech. Har­nagel couldn’t have had a bet­ter safety pi­lot; Tur­ney is a highly ex­pe­ri­enced racer, for­mer air boss and co-founder of the Sport and Jet classes. He eval­u­ated the air­plane, which had a

cou­ple of bumps on the fuse­lage, and pro­vided as­sis­tance to Har­nagel on the way down.

Eck­mann’s air­plane was much worse off, and he got it on the ground be­fore any­one had time to join up. The wingtip and aileron on one wing were gone, and the hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal sta­bi­liz­ers were dam­aged as well. With ex­tra­or­di­nary pi­lot­ing skills, Eck­mann con­trolled the air­plane and got it down safely.

The Sport Gold fi­nal heat also cre­ates more ex­cite­ment than Magic and I have bar­gained for. The first emer­gency hap­pens just af­ter we re­lease the air­planes for the race at the start py­lon. Race 181, pi­loted by Karl Grove, calls the may­day and pulls up. He heads straight for Run­way 14, the run­way gen­er­ally used for emer­gen­cies, and lands with­out in­ci­dent.

Once Grove is on the ground, Magic and I climb up above the race­course. LaVelle and Findlay are quite a ways ahead of the other rac­ers, lap­ping some of them, so it is hard to see which white air­plane is which.

As soon as we no­tice the smoke trail, Magic calls out “smoke” on the ra­dio and dives to­ward the ail­ing air­plane. Is it Bob Mills in Race 47, Jim Rust in Race 24 or LaVelle in Race 39? We don’t know un­til we get close enough to see the num­bers on the tail — 39.

Be­ing the fi­nal lap, LaVelle pulls up at the home py­lon to gain some al­ti­tude to cool the en­gine down. With the ex­cite­ment of the race, he hasn’t heard Magic’s call and doesn’t re­al­ize his dilemma un­til he has al­ready flown away from the air­port. He looks at his en­gine in­stru­ments and re­al­izes some­thing is very wrong. He calls may­day and starts head­ing for Run­way 14. Magic and I fol­low be­side him.

In some cases, when an en­gine blows, the wind­shield gets cov­ered with oil, mak­ing the pace pi­lot the emer­gency pi­lot’s eyes to the out­side world. LaVelle still has good vis­i­bil­ity, but as soon as he low­ers his land­ing gear the en­gine quits. With lots of drag and no power, the air­plane sinks quickly. Magic and I watch in dis­may as it ap­pears that the air­plane will end up in the dirt. But LaVelle skill­fully puts the left main on the run­way just as he turns fi­nal. All is well.

But the pace pi­lot’s job isn’t over yet. Like a momma duck mak­ing sure all of her duck­lings are fol­low­ing in line, Magic has to make sure all of the race air­planes get down safely be­fore land­ing. They do.

Af­ter the race, Magic and I head over to LaVelle’s pit. Race 39 has oil stains stream­ing down the cowl and nose gear. LaVelle asks ex­cit­edly, “Did I still get sec­ond?” A true race pi­lot! He can use the purse money from his sec­ond-place fin­ish for a new en­gine, and there is no doubt that he will be back next year to give Findlay a run for his money.

A de­serv­ing win­ner, Findlay has had his share of may­days on the course. In past years I’ve seen his team work day and night to get the air­plane fly­ing op­ti­mally. Findlay cred­its his suc­cess to his spon­sors, friends and his fam­ily, par­tic­u­larly his wife, Jackie. “It was an in­cred­i­ble week for the team,” said Findlay. “We have been chasing 400 mph for years.”




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