Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 Reno Air Races

Evolution of the Jet Class

guest speakerIn 2001, “the year that never was,” I was part of the initial attempt to race jet airplanes in the Reno Air Races. The Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) wanted to demonstrate to the FAA that jets could be raced safely by organizing an invitational jet event. It borrowed seven L-39 Albatroses, an ideal jet for the racecourse because it lists a top speed of about 470 mph (the FAA’s concerns about jets included excessive speeds and the possibility of wings getting pulled off in high-G turns at high speeds). Experienced race pilots—including Jimmy Leeward, Mary Dilda, Curt Brown and Skip Holm—assembled for the jet races, but the events of September 11 shut the competition down. In 2002, however, the jets were flown successfully, and I placed fifth in the Gold Final, racing a L-39 borrowed from Gary and Kathleen Dyer. With each successive year, the Jet Class evolved, and in 2004, I raced an L-39 belonging to Scott Stephens, placing seventh.

In 2008, after a lapse of a couple years, I found myself racing in the Jet Class in a beautiful L-39, Robin 1, owned by Bob and Robin Miles. Initially, the aircraft was kept primarily stock, and then, as everyone became comfortable with the Jet Class, some modifications were added (the tip tanks came off, etc.). The year before, the comfort level had increased enough that RARA decided to open the Jet Class to any straight-wing, non-afterburning jet. This introduced a very diverse set of airplanes into the class, including a T-2 Buckeye, a T-33 minus tip tanks, an L-29 with a Viper engine and some other “hot” jets. In 2007, speeds increased, and several aircraft turned over 500 mph. Sadly, the 2007 races were marked by tragic accidents in which several pilots lost their lives, including jet pilot Brad Morehouse. This led to a reevaluation of the Jet Class for 2008. It was decided that the entries would, from now on, be limited to L-29, L-39 and Fouga Magister aircraft. (Indeed, the Jet Class came close to being cancelled altogether.)

So it followed that, this past September, the Jet Class had a lot to prove. The FAA’s opinion was that two of the fatal accidents in 2007 had happened due to intentional noncompliance on the part of the pilots. As a result, the FAA and RARA placed considerable pressure on jets in the Jet Class to demonstrate that they could race safely. Cliff Magee, the Jet Class president, and Curt Brown, RARA’s director of flight, worked tirelessly to get the class one more chance, and a lot was riding on 2008’s outcome! The FAA showed up in force for the races, even sending three safety inspectors to the first several days of Jet Class briefings.

guest speaker
THE HEAT IS ON. “Hoot” Gibson raced this L-39 in the pressure-filled jet races of 2008.
Because nine jet aircraft were racing, RARA decided not to divide the contenders into daily Silver and Gold races. Instead, RARA chose to stage all nine aircraft in a single event on each day, leading up to the Silver and Gold Finals. An F-15 pilot, Trevor Schaefer, flew the pace plane for our heats. This wasn’t your everyday formation: 10 aircraft in a line-abreast formation at the start, with a pace plane! And we had a few growing pains: The first day, the formation got increasingly ragged as we approached the starting line, with excessive vertical deviation by several pilots. The second day, we had a terrible start and at least one racer had to pitch up out of the start. It was a fairly dismal moment for the class, having messed up two out of two attempts at starts! In the debrief, Brown put it quite bluntly: “Guys, if we can’t do better than this, then we aren’t going to make it!” This direct approach seemed to work; we all settled down and cruised through the rest of the week without any further difficulties.

The jet racing was intense; Brown finished first (at 510.124 mph) in the Gold Final race on Sunday. He was closely followed by Mike Mangold, at 499.272 mph. Both piloted L-29 Delfins with Viper engines, and they basically had the front part of the racecourse to themselves. Joe Gano flew the fastest L-39 speed (480.488 mph); the Gold Final’s slowest speed was 414.858 mph. The pilots in the Jet Class were fortunate in that they were able to fly twice on Sunday, doing a Silver Final as well as the Gold Final. Speeds in the Silver race were actually just a little faster than in the Gold race, with the slowest airplane coming in at 424.258 mph.

It was a successful outcome for the 2008 Jet Class. After starting the year under a microscope, the class gathered favorable reviews from Reid Walhburg, the FAA’s representative to the races, as well as from RARA, the airport manager and fans. The class established itself as a professionally run and safe operation, and the spirit of camaraderie and cooperation among the jet racers was a wonderful thing to experience. Here’s to another great year in 2009!   

Robert “Hoot” Gibson is a former Navy fighter pilot who has flown F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats. He’s a graduate of “Topgun” and the USN Test Pilot School, and he has flown five space shuttle missions. At the Reno Air Races, he has raced in the Formula One, Unlimited and Jet Classes.


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