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As most readers will realize, it is no small feat to bring an Unlimited race plane, or any plane for that matter, to the Reno National Championship Air Races every year. One not only has to own and maintain a very fast and very expensive aircraft, but above all it takes the total dedication and loyalty of a highly talented race team to make this happen.
Terry Bland, a retired Utah businessman, bought Dago Red in 1997 from David Price and the Museum of Flying. Bland just wanted to own a Mustang. When Dago Red came up for sale he thought that it would be a fine plane to buy and turn into a “stocker”. However Bland discovered quickly that Dago was amongst the fastest highly modified Mustangs in the world, and a much beloved racer. Bland learned that many of the fans - especially the Dago Dogs - would be very distraught to see the end of this unique aircraft’s racing days. So Bland decided to try his hand at air racing. While he came to this particular sport with no previous knowledge, he was well acquainted with the experience of fierce competition. He used to race motor cycles with his good friend Bob Hannah.
Bland applied his thorough knowledge of racing as well as his business acumen to the task at hand and proceeded to put together an outstanding air race team. As Mike Wilton tells the story: “You have to have an owner who realizes that you have to have the right crew chief. And Terry knew. He went around and found out who the best crew chief was and got Bill Kerchenfaut (right). Then he told Bill ‘Put me together the best crew you can’. So Bill cherry-picked the pits for who he wanted, for who he knew would work the best”.
A couple of factors about this team stand out. They are a group of genuinely professional individuals. Team member Tom Smothermon who in his “other” life manages two large avionics shops, commented that “This is probably the most professional group that I have ever dealt with in anything”. It is not uncommon to see a crowd gathered around the Dago Red pit area in order to just watch some of the members of this team in action. They are highly disciplined and work well together. They are an incredibly dedicated group, loyal to their crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut, and loyal to the program he has developed.
Not only is each crew member truly outstanding in their own field, but they understand that as a team they can accomplish far more than any of them could on their own. When Kerchenfaut assembled the team, he actually chose this group of individuals for their ability to work well together, as well as bringing the diverse array of skills and expertise that was needed. For example the Dago team has a battery man - Steve Andrues, a radiator expert - Dave Griswold, a telemetry specialist - Jim Foss (right), someone with notable expertise in avionics - Tom Smothermon, and the person in charge of transportation owns a trucking company - Dick Godfrey. Mike Wilton and Steve Bartholf are the power plant specialists and engine builders. Dave Fagoaga is the team’s airframe mechanic. If a challenge occurs and more hands on deck are needed a number of accomplished mechanics, many with their A&P license, are ready to pitch in such as Micah Combs, Eric (Matt) Hoffman, Clay Liston and Dan Stout. Each has other tasks involving the team as well.
Then there is the affable Chris Wood (right) who was Dago’s very capable crew chief for many years prior to Dago Red being purchased by Terry Bland. Because of Wood’s expertise and thorough knowledge of the plane and all its systems, he was asked to remain on the crew to troubleshoot and ensure the quality of all the work that is done on the plane. It is Wood who with his charmingly low-key manner thoroughly double checks and triple checks every detail.
Providing invaluable support for this team is Dede Holm who efficiently takes care of the marketing, promotion and all the practical details involving team members, family members, friends and other guests. Richard and Tiffany Proffitt are also involved with the inevitable necessity of marketing to assist in raising much needed funds.
Through time spent together in sharing the intense experience of being on a race team, team members have become familiar with each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. They know about personal idiosyncrasies and different ways of working. They have also become close friends and genuinely like each other. Many crewmembers likened being a team member to being part of a family.
The Dago team members are also very aware that they possess expertise in their respective fields. Their unabashed self-confidence, their joy in being so good at what they do, is a delight to watch especially because they also have the ability to leave their egos outside the pit area. Squabbles and conflict, even when the pressure mounts, are a rare event. Mike Wilton (on right in photo) ascribes this whole amazing process to the way in which their crew chief, Bill Kerchenfaut, manages the team. He asserted “The key to this whole thing is the crew chief”.
Bill Kerchenfaut is a thoughtful, reflective person whose management style flows from his wide base of knowledge and a depth of understanding of human nature. He is not only a master mechanic and respected by everyone in the air race community for what he knows and how he goes about doing his job, but he is also a role model and inspiration to the crew. He approaches everything he does with integrity. He firmly believes in allowing each team member to do what they do best and letting them each go as far with that as they can. He encourages creativity and independent thinking in each team member. He is also values and unequivocally supports each person. They all know that their crew chief really likes them, respects and trusts them, cares about their well being and cares about how well they do.
What is also really interesting about this team is that most of them are not only licensed airframe and power plant mechanics, but that they are also intimately familiar with other aspects of aviation. Many are pilots who have their commercial or private license. Even the team photographer Margaret Watt, and the team’s web master Scott Germain, are experienced airline pilots (left). All of the team members not only understand what aviation is all about, but aviation is their passion. They also have in common a love for warbirds and above all they share a passion for racing. This brings them together on the Dago Red team, ready to meet the challenge at the Reno air races each year.
This challenge is what the racing experience is really all about. To race is to explore the edge of human and mechanical possibility. As many of the air race community and the air race fans know, these machines now far exceed the limits for which they were designed. Air racing truly is the most extreme version of motor sport currently in existence because of the speeds that are now involved. This means that the people who make this venture happen need to reach for their own limits in their own area of expertise. Dago Red is a single systems airplane. If any part, regardless of how small or minor, malfunctions or fails, there is no backup system. Therefore team members must be responsible, reliable and utterly trustworthy in everything they do. Any changes that are made must be incremental, one flowing from the other and thoroughly thought out. There is no room for work without integrity.
Most team members actually did not see the main goal as “winning the race”. Instead the goal they articulated is “to keep Skip safe”, which means giving him the safest airplane they can for him to do his job, i.e. “to win the race”. There simply is no room for error.
Despite the constant pressure that “no room for error” entails, all team members, without exception, commented on how meaningful their participation in this venture has been to them. They consider it their highest achievement and the highlight of their lives. They are immensely proud to be part of this team. They value this beyond almost everything else in their lives. They know that together they create an experience that is unique. Reflecting on this experience, Mike Wilton (on left in photo) spoke of “working together without the necessity of speech”, with each person simply knowing what needed to be done and when.
Another team member, Steve Andrues used words such as “flow” and “energy”. He tried to explain: “You’ve got an entire group of people and there is this energy that the group emits, it is like a radiation that you have to experience in order to understand. To try to put the Dago experience down in words in hope that you can do justice to it, may fall woefully short”.
In addition to shared values, each team member also has his or her own reasons for being so emotionally involved and deeply committed to the Dago experience. Micah Combs appreciates the profound experience of connection and belonging akin to the feeling of being a member of a well functioning family. Dave Fagoaga (left) is attracted to racing as a “venue that allows an almost pioneering spirit to exist” and “an opportunity of boundless creativity”. Then there is the intensity of the racing experience. Fagoaga added, “I think airplanes are great and I love them but I wanted to ride the fire-breathing dragon”.
Mike Wilton simply thrives on adrenaline and the immense challenge of doing the impossible. As an example of this, many of you are probably familiar with the Dago Red story that unfolded in the weeks prior to Reno 2004.
In the beginning of August 2004, the engine was brought from Dwight Thorn’s Mystery Aire shop in Hollister, California, to Dave Fagoaga’s hangar in Provo, Utah, where Dago Red is based. The engine was installed in the airframe and test runs were done. Everything was going very well until a routine check of the filters suddenly turned into a mechanic’s nightmare. What an astonished Fagoaga saw were metal shavings. Lots of them. Everywhere oil goes in an engine, there was metal from one of the main crankshaft bearings. A demoralized team realized that there was not enough time to fix the problem and still make it to Reno on time for the races. It took about 45 minutes for the emotional devastation to be replaced by cautious excitement as they made the decision to give it a whirl and make an attempt to do the impossible; to clean and rebuild the engine in the few weeks left before the start of race week.
The engine was dismounted expediently and Mike Wilton drove it back from Provo to Hollister. In Mystery Aire’s shop, Wilton and Steve Bartholf with the assistance of every available team member and friend of the team, cleaned and rebuilt the engine in ten days, a job that normally takes a minimum of three weeks. When telling this story, Wilton with his characteristic flair and enthusiasm exclaimed in reference to this challenge, “This is what we live for!”
The engine was returned to Provo and reinstalled in Dago’s airframe. But this was not yet to be the end of this tale …
Test flights were done at the small local Provo airport. Everyone was pleased with what they had accomplished. Pilot Skip Holm was coming in to land from their last test flight at full race power. Everything looked and sounded good. The plane was ready to be flown to Reno where owner Terry Bland was waiting to receive the aircraft.
However as Holm (on left in photo) was preparing to land, the little Provo airport suddenly became a less accommodating place. A number of other airplanes had been coming in to partake in an air show that weekend. One plane had ground looped and emergency vehicles occupied the main runway. There was another runway but the two runways intersected and the accident had occurred close to the intersection. One other problem was that Holm was rapidly running out of fuel and his situation was literally on the verge of becoming critical. He called a Mayday expecting the runway to be cleared. No response. Holm concluded that they had not heard him and called another Mayday now having run out of fuel. Still no response. Holm showing his superb piloting skills, planted Dago in the dirt next to the runway with minimal damage to the plane. The team is convinced that had there been anyone but Skip Holm at the controls, there would have been a real problem. The team surveyed the damage and rallied once again. The necessary repairs were done by evening time. The next day, a final coat of paint was applied to the areas that had been repaired and Dago Red was on its way to Reno.
What makes the Dago Red story possible is first and foremost the owner, Terry Bland, who created the opportunity for this venture to come into existence. What makes this unique venture happen is a group of remarkable individuals who know how to work together as a real team.
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