Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rookies of Reno

So you want to race around the pylons? Here’s a look at what it takes.

The Reno Air Races are unlike any other contest in the world. Watching multiple airplanes round a corner in tight formation is exhilarating to watch and must be borderline terrifying to do, though the racers, Type-A personalities to the max, calmly admit only to “heightened awareness” as they race. Not only does Reno boast the fastest speeds and some of the longest courses of any motorsport, but it’s illegal to practice! Not until low-level, high-speed waivers are granted can civilians fly so low and so fast.

There are seven classes of racing: Biplanes, Formula One, Sport, Super Sport, T-6, Jets and Unlimited. Each is carefully controlled by its own class committees and by the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA), and each has its own rules, controversies, stars, history and charm. If sufficient entries register, there may be as many as three or four trophy races (Gold, Silver, Bronze and sometimes Medallion) after a week of qualifying and heat races.

Every June, the hallowed halls of Stead Airport in Reno, Nev., are home to the Pylon Racing School, known to most as PRS or “Rookie School.” New racers and veterans alike spend one week testing equipment and determining if the challenges of air racing really are for them. The atmosphere is informal, but with a seriousness and edge all its own.

The week that PRS takes place is the only time, other than the actual races, when the courses are open. Other than that, “practicing” for the Reno races is illegal worldwide, and that’s significant, given that canopy-to-belly air racing is a fast and extreme motorsport. As such, many veterans show up for PRS. It’s a chance for them to test new mods and sometimes entirely new airplanes. They work hard as instructors, too—when race week comes, they’ll be up there with the “students,” and they want to be confident in everyone’s abilities.

The students may be Reno rookies, but they certainly aren’t aviation ones. They’re corporate pilots, ag pilots, air show performers, military pilots, airline pilots—all highly skilled. After graduation, they’ll have a whole new skill. Some wash out, some can’t get ready in time for September, some just never show up again. But it’s true that almost all enjoy the school and learn things about flying that they never had fathomed. We met up with several rookies at different stages of training and aircraft preparations.


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