How many rookies show up at Reno and kick ass
their first year?
One: Mike Brown.
Who was this man behind the controls of race number 911, a stock looking Hawker Sea Fury with an R-3350 and two bomb-toting storks on the cowling? Surely he must be an ex-military pilot with lots of high performance fighter time... He must have been flying warbirds for thousands of hours... Maybe he was a test pilot.
As it turns out, it is none of the above. Mike Brown is your normal civilian trained pilot that happens to have the proper attitude when it comes to unlimited air racing. If you watch Brown fly, you’ll see his line wrap tightly around the pylons and remain consistent. He flies low. He doesn’t care about the guys behind him; he wants to pass the guys ahead of him.
Brown got his start in air racing where many have before - in the crowd. "I first came to Reno and sat in the cheap seats on the ramp. Then I thought I was pretty cool when I was actually sitting up in the bleachers with assigned seats. I was watching guys likes the Sanders." he says. Like other current unlimited pilots, Brown was influenced by the likes of Tiger, Brickert, and Shelton. "All these pilots are my mentors; they were like gods. They were obviously not pilots like you and I," he says
With the idea of racing at Reno, Brown was able to realize his dream due to his personal success. Obviously, participating in unlimited air racing takes a buck or two, let alone doing it with two aircraft. He fields the two-seat, R-3350 powered September Pops and his newer racer, the hot rod #232 September Fury. Brown first came to Reno in 1998 flying September Pops, and quickly established himself as a hard charger with a qualifying speed nudging the 400 mph mark. With a flying style reminescent of Darryl Greenamyer, Brown flew the course very low and tight; low enough that he was penalized for low flying. At Reno in 1999, he flew each race day and found himself in Sunday’s Gold race, where he finished an outstanding fifth place at 395.906 mph.
Not bad for a new guy.
Previous to Reno 1999, Brown had been introduced to the Sanders family. "Dreadnought was always one of my favorite planes out there," he explains. "The big, dual control, heavy, big airplane kicking ass on everybody." With Dreadnought battling the sleek Mustangs and Tsunami over the years, it is easy to understand Brown’s feelings about the Sea Fury, and why he chose it to go racing in them.
"It was like rooting for the underdog," he says of Dreadnought with a smile. "I love the elliptical wing."
Sanders Aircraft built up September Pops for Brown, incorporating their deep knowledge of the Hawker Sea Fury, and mated the Wright R-3350 to the airframe. As it’s race speeds show, Pops is a reliable 400 mph sport aircraft/racer.
Enter the Sea Fury airframe that has been known as "232" for many years. Once painted in Korean War British military markings, 232 had been owned and flown by Frank Sanders, and was passed on to his sons, Dennis and Brian. When Brown told the Sanders that he wanted to build a faster Sea Fury racer, he acquired 232 and the design process commenced.
What came out of the other end was September Fury, which still carries race number 232. The racer incorporates a number of major modifications, and hundreds of smaller details. Brown looks at his airplane and says, "It was a group effort to come up with all of the mods. Everybody from Frank Sanders, sons Dennis and Brian, myself, and Bob Smith, who helped design Dreadnought. We all had input into the modifications that make up 232. It’s been a lot of little inputs from a lot of people."
Inject it and Boil it
September Fury is a very different airplane than a stock Sea Fury, let alone another racing Fury. "I think we’re the only Sea Fury to ever run fuel injection, and we’re the only Sea Fury to run boil-off oil cooling," Brown says. "In those two respects, the boil-off system is way bizarre - different - than an oil cooler setup. We’re running an oil cooler, but it’s submersed in methanol." As the engine oil heats up during flight, it is carried to the cooler where the heat is transferred to the liquid. As the methanol heats up, it boils overboard as steam. The result is zero cooling drag for the engine oil.
Parallels can be drawn between Brown’s Fury and earlier race planes such as Conquest One and Stiletto; two other racers than ran boil-off cooling systems. Conquest One also used boil-off for the oil only, but Stiletto ran the heat exchanger and oil cooler as a single boil-off system. Pete Law designed the system so well, Stiletto could fly for an extended period of time at cruise power without cooking off the limited amount of coolant.
"We’re even better off than Stiletto because we have wet wings," Brown says. "We have the capability of carrying over 230 gallons of fluids, plumbed any way we want. We can go hours and hours. We can go out and fly the airplane any way."
As with many other race aircraft, September Fury barely made it to Reno it’s first year. Reno 2000 was Brown’s second year as a race pilot, and September Fury’s debut. "Last year, when we brought it up, we had just put the prop on that morning," Brown grins. "The longest flight it had at that point was the qualifying flight. We qualified at 433 mph, and that was literally the longest flight we had put on the airplane."
In its modified form, September Fury was already quite a bit faster than other -3350 powered Sea Fury’s. Although the wings are not clipped, and the canopy isn’t "messed up," as Brown puts it, the racer is much different than a stocker. "The structure is the same, but a lot of the little military brackets and stuff are gone," he says.
When Brown took to the pylons during the practice and qualifying sessions at Reno, people stood there with their eyebrows raised. They pointed at him and the natural metal racer ripping over the sagebrush. He looked much like Greenamyer did in the old days; on the deck, tight where he needed to be, smooth, and consistent. "We just qualified it and landed it," he says nonchalantly. "We didn’t even put a big whip to it."
He describes sitting in the cockpit of September Fury down on the course, "loafing" around. "It’s funny, sitting there with the throttle nowhere near the firewall, and the airplane is just going. I’d have September Pops firewalled and it would be nowhere near where this thing is."
Clearly, September Fury has much more speed potential. Brown explained the team’s plans to test thoroughly with stocks of hot racing fuel with a qualified test pilot. There are also more surprises in the propulsion and airframe departments.
Mike Brown’s eyes twinkle. "No.. You can’t print that," he grins.
A vertical learning curve at Reno is not an uncommon thing, but Brown has handled the task of scaling it very well. Veteran racers will tell you that at some point, you will have an engine failure. Mike Brown’s happened during the start of Friday’s gold heat race while flying September Fury at Reno 2000. He explains the situation and the extreme disappointment that followed.
"We got the engine from Matt Jackson and Dave Cornell. It was going to be used in their racer, but it was never overhauled and ready to go racing. It was going to be their mock-up, a preliminary first step type of thing. We were going to do the same thing, just to get it done. Like everything else, you just run out of time and here you are - it’s September!" The mock up engine ended being their race engine in 2000.
With the fuel injected R-3350 in place, Brown got the plane to Reno and got it qualified. After the takeoff and join-up for Friday’s race, he was sitting pretty in the start formation. Coming down the chute, he got a chip light, then the engine scattered big time.
"It’s disappointing. It’s really disappointing," Brown reflects. "You’ve got your race face on, you’re hunkered down on your bicycle, and you’re ready to go. You’re looking at your friends next to you - Skip Holm in Dago Red and Matt Jackson in Voodoo, thinking, ‘This is way cool shit! This is way cool!’ Then we had The Big Problem." The feeling of watching the remaining three racers shoot out ahead and start the race was disappointing. "They took off and left, and you’re doing the ‘But I’m not done yet!’ thing. So it was hard - a big letdown. There was some depression for me for some time," he says.
When September Fury’s engine quit, Brown was coming up over the runway intersection on the southeast corner of the airport. His low key demeanor is accentuated by the way he tells his story in a matter of fact manner. "I got pretty lucky," he says of his mayday. "It was no great skill on my behalf. Everybody out here could do what I did, and then some." Nothing about Mike Brown gives you the sense of an inflated ego. Actually, he actually comes across a bit shy.
With his big gun out of the picture for Reno 2000, the aircraft was partially disassembled and trucked back to the Sanders’ facility in Ione, California. Since that time, the crew has been working on the aircraft nonstop.
"The airframe is almost done, but the engine is not, so it’s going to be tight in getting to Reno this year. We’ve worked on the plane five days a week for the entire year. It’s not like we pull the airplane out two weeks before Reno and make it ready," Brown says.
"We’ve actually been doing mods to the plane all year, and building an engine all year. But a custom engine is something - it’s an engine that has never been built before. It’s something for our airplane that is what we want. And the airframe is being modified to a way that’s never been done before for a Sea Fury, either. So we’ve taken 232 to a whole new level of racing. We hope..."
Brown went on to say that they’ve run out of time to paint the racer for Reno 2001, and nothing has been decided upon for the final scheme. With the new airframe mods, the new fairings and the new composite parts, September Fury will appear in epoxy primer if it all.
The Long Haul
Even if September Fury isn’t ready in time for this year’s race, Mike Brown and his crew will be there in September Pops. They are also in unlimited air racing for the long haul. "We just bought the Museum of Flying’s race trailer, and it’s being overhauled and rebuilt. It will be up here... And we’re looking at buying other airplanes. We’re actually looking at buying another race airplane," Brown says. "No names, but if I mentioned it, you would know it."
With unlimited air racing in its current state, it is heartening to see a new competitor arrive on the scene with such vigor and such a deep drive to win. Racing doesn’t offer huge checks to the winners, and it certainly doesn’t lead to lucrative endorsement deals. These guys do it because they like to race.
"There are less and less people all the time," Brown muses. "Doing this doesn’t only take the skills to be an unlimited pilot. The bigger skill is to be financially solvent enough in life to be able to afford your passions. A lot of guys have the ability to be a pilot, and a lot are good pilots. But it’s the whole package; you have to have the passion, the will, and the ability."
Obviously, Brown possesses all of these traits, and them some.
Story and Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press. Copyright 1999/2000/2001. All Right Reserved.