Over the years, the pace/safety aircraft has become a fixture at the Reno National Championship Air Races. Unlike car racing, the three dimensional aspect of air racing allows this additional safety tool to be used. When Bill Stead was putting the races together for the inaugural 1964 event, former fighter and test pilot Robert "Bob" Hoover was part of that process, and knew that safety would be a factor. A crash at the 1949 Cleveland air races was a major factor in the demise of that event. Hoover saw that there wasnít enough room for the risky race-horse start, so he came up with the idea of a pace aircraft and the airborne start.
The Original - Bob Hoover

During Renoís first 30 years, it was Hoover and his yellow P-51 Mustang bringing the pack down the chute and transmitting those famous words, ĎGentlemen, you have a race!í Hoover explained, "At the Indy 500, they have ĎGentlemen, start your engines!.í I thought we needed something flashy, so I came up with that. Itís showmanship, if you will."

Hoover was known to release the racers just past pylon two; pretty low to the ground and at the point they had to begin a turn to stay on the course. After the start, Hoover would pull up and orbit over the field to help any race aircraft that had a problem or an emergency. Today, much the same happens - itís just with a different plane and pilot.

The change occurred because, in the late 1980's , the unlimited racers were achieving speeds in the 450 to 470 mph range. Gold racers such as Dreadnought, Dago Red, Strega and Rare Bear were super clean aircraft, and were to the point they were coming down the chute with minimal power. When Hoover called the race start, theyíd have to hammer the throttle, get the spray bars and ADI turned on, concentrate on not hitting another racer or the ground, and get around the first pylon. Saying that task saturation was high is an understatement.

To add insult to injury, Hooverís stock Mustang was maxed out as he led the racers onto the course. Even with full power on the stock Merlin, the Yellowbird Mustang wasnít quite letting the pack go at a speed good for them. Frank Sanders, owner of the R-4360 powered Dreadnought Sea Fury, was one of the first to think a faster aircraft would be more beneficial for the race start.

New Guard - Steve Hinton

Although there is really more to it than that, it was decided that retired race pilot, warbird pilot and movie pilot Steve Hinton would take over the role. Very few other people could have filled those shoes, and Hinton has done it admirably. Hoover already knew Hinton very well; going back to when he would ferry Hoover's T-33, F-86 and P-51 to the various airshows around the country. Hintonís background includes first flights in restored warbirds and racers, as well as thousands of hours in almost every other warbird type. He also is a two-time former Reno champion, and was the youngest pilot within the unlimited ranks when he was 26 years old. He has also raced some of the most exotic unlimiteds ever; the Red Baron, the Super Corsair, and of course, Tsunami. Today, he can look down from the T-33 pace aircraft and understand the performance characteristics and systems of the racers below him.

As the president of Fighter Rebuilders, and a pilot at the Chino Planes of Fame Air Museum, Hinton grew up around warbirds and unlimited air racing. Hintonís stick skills have been honed in everything from a Luscombe to a T-6, and from Mustangs, Tigercats, Spitfires, to bombers and jets. On any given weekend at Chino, he can jump from the P-38 to a Bearcat, then finish the day in a Spitfire or a Hurricane. On top of that, heís a genuinely nice guy, too.

The "Job"

During the races, Hinton, dressed in his flight suit and movie star tan, explained the general duties of being the pace/safety pilot. The young race pilot has now matured to a business man, a respected aircraft restorer, and a world renowned aviator with just a hint of gray hair. He has the eyes of experience.

"Actually, itís the most fun job... Youíre responsible for getting everybody into the start formation, taking them around Peavine Mountain, and pointed at the right point to enter the course," Hinton says. "There are a lot of responsibilities. Iíve flown all those types of airplanes, so I have a good idea of what each are capable of. The point I make of that is... If you hold 180 knots in the climb, does that mean youíre going to climb at 500 feet per minute, or 2,000 feet per minute? That can vary a lot between the bronze and the gold racers."

Hinton also explains how there are a wide range of pilot abilities within the unlimited class. "Some guys you never watch... Skip; you never worry about him. Dennis (right) and Brian Sanders... You never even watch those guys. I know one guy might not be a good formation pilot; he may hit another guy. I may turn into a guy like Skip or Dennis because I know they can handle it - for the sake of the formation. Some of the new guys that donít do this for a living, they might get in a bad spot if I turn too soon or too late. So, you have to fly this predetermined path so everybody knows what youíre going to do. These are things that go through my mind."

The use of a smoke system makes it a lot easier for the last aircraft within the formation to find the T-33 and make the join up. If you watch closely, youíll see the T-33 take off, fly straight for a mile, then begin a turn. As each racer takes off, they will make an immediate turn to "cut off" the formation and make the join up easier. After takeoff, Hinton makes several radio calls to let the formation know if heís turning to a certain direction, that the smoke is coming on, and what airspeed heís at. The transmissions allow each race pilot to get the big picture of how the join up is going, and if they need to hustle up.

As the formation gets closer to the start chute, the pilots are transitioning from "flying" mode to "racing" mode. Spray bars and ADI systems are being turned on and adjusted. Oil temperature and pressures are being checked. Pumps are being turned on and cooling doors are being adjusted. Itís hardly a safe place for formation flying. All the while, Hinton is keeps an eye on the formation, making his radio calls, and getting the formation lined up with the guide pylon for the race start.

Since he used to be one of the top race pilots, it isnít any surprise when he said, "I like to haul ass, too! At the start of the race, I can get the T-33 cooking and still be out front. You get to look down and say, ĎItís hot in here,í and flick on the air conditioning. And you look out at Tiger or Skip out there, and you can hear them going wooooooooo... Theyíve got those things all wound up, and of course, Iím just sitting there in air conditioning." Hinton smiles and looks across the pits and reflects for a second. "Itís kind of a really neat feeling being there with the guys. Iíve come down there so many times following Hoover. Now, here I am... Somebody is following me. I just thought it was a really neat feeling. Itís an honor to be here with these guys."

First Hand Look

So what is it like to fly in the pace aircraft during the start of an unlimited race? WarbirdAeroPress.com was invited to find out during this yearís silver heat race on September 12.

It was apparent during the brief that this wouldnít be a Ďsit down, buckle up and shut upí ride. Hinton gave a full brief about what was expected of me during the flight; I would help him keep track of the racers during the join up, down the chute, and while on the course during the race. "Itís almost easier to pick out their shadows, rather than the plane itself," he said. "If somebody has a problem, try and pick them up as quick as you can and keep them in sight. Iíll start a join up, so if I donít see them, direct me to them. If there are multiple maydays, Iíll tell you which one to follow and weíll sort out which one is more important. Weíll go for that one until heís ok, then try to get to the second one."

Hinton also asked me to speak up if there was something that caught my eye and relay it to him.

At the T-33, former race pilot Kevin Eldridge gave me a cockpit checkout in the back seat of the Planes of Fameís T-33. Hinton was already strapping into the front seat and monitoring the race frequency; it would be another 10 minutes until we cranked up and taxied out. Meanwhile, Eldridge helped me into the parachute harness and seat straps and had me connect the automatic cables that would deploy my parachute if we had to eject.


"Yeah, the seats are hot," Eldridge said. He explained the operation of the handles to jettison the canopy if Hinton hadnít already, and how to initiate my leaving the aircraft in a hurry. Left yellow handle first, then the right yellow one. At that point there would be a big noise, Iíd forcibly leave the aircraft, it would get really windy, and Iíd have a probable back injury. That is better than the alternative...

"The throttle is here with a radio push to talk. The intercom is here," he said. Eldridge touched each item as he went along. He also pointed out the pertinent engine gauges, the aileron boost control, radio volume and various other items particular to the T-33. Everything else was basic airplane stuff. I was also going to take particular care not to have my legs get in the way of the stick while airborne.

"Have fun!," he said as I put my helmet on.

The lineup for this race would have been a Sea Fury-only race, but Howard Pardue and his Bearcat was in there, too. Hoot Gibson had the pole in Riff Raff, followed by Stewart Dawson, Nelson Ezell in Pardueís Fury, Randy Bailey in September Pops, and Bill Rheinschild in Bad Attitude. Pardue was bringing up the end in his Bearcat.

After a intercom check, Hinton started the engine and we followed the pack out to Steadís runway 8. After the racers checked in on the race frequency, he got a nod from each racer as we taxied by, letting him know they were ready. When cleared for takeoff, we closed the canopy, spooled up and were off. At Steadís 5,000 foot elevation, the acceleration of this early-era jet wasnít exactly spectacular. Hinton said, "Weíre going to use a lot of runway today." We did.

The Join Up

After getting the gear up, Hinton turned the smoke on for a short period of time. I was already looking back to pick up Gibson; he was coming up on the left for a textbook cross-under join up. Even for a pilot with some basic formation skills, it was impressive to see Gibson join up and stick to Hintonís wing the way he did. He was seldom out of position; and if a gust kicked him out a bit, he was right back where he should be within a few seconds.

Hinton continued the left turn to allow the rest of the racers to come aboard and have a few moments to settle in. "The pace aircraft is heading west, climbing through 9,000 feet at 210 knots. Smoke coming on...," Hinton said as he surveyed the racers off our right wing. There was Gibson, always with his eyes on us, never out of position. Rock solid. Dawson had also come aboard and was nicely spaced on Gibson.

If it seems like things happen very quickly; they do. Just a few minutes ago, we were gear up and accelerating off of the runway - now we were in a left turn southbound. The chute is now just a few minutes away, and it was easy to see everybody putting on their game faces. It wasnít an especially bumpy day, but it wasnít smooth, either. All of the racers did a nice job of keeping the formation, but poor Pardue at the end was getting whipped around pretty good. Dawson and Bailey held their positions really well.

As Hinton brought the pack around to the chute, it was exciting to know that we were coming down a very special piece of airspace. Being flown down the chute by Hinton is pretty neat in itself, but to know that the likes of Hoover, Crocker, Holm, Shelton, Tiger, Love, Levitz, Brickert and a host of others had been there before was amazing.

Hinton kept a closer eye on the pack as they spread out to a line abreast formation; one of the most difficult to fly. Itís easy to see why several racers have gotten ahead of the pace aircraft over the years; itís not hard to creep out in front. You want to get a good start.

"You guys have a really nice formation today," Hinton said several times over the radio. Through the camera, I could see downtown Reno pass to the east; we were coming downhill at a pretty good clip.

Every so often, the sound of Gibsonís Sea Fury could be heard as he made power and RPM adjustments. As he came out to line abreast of Hinton, he would go head-down in the cockpit for a brief second, then be back outside with his eyes on Hinton.

Down we went, for what seemed like an eternity. Lower, faster... The pack was getting a but jumpy. The smoke had been on for a while now. Hinton was watching the guide pylon and the formation. We must be...


"Gentlemen, youíre looking good! Gentlemen, you have a race!"

The last thing I saw through the camera was Hoot Gibson's head swiveling from watching the T-33 to looking straight ahead. Hinton pulled the T-33 into a 4 G nearly vertical climb to get out of the way, provide a dramatic race start, and to position himself above the race course to observe the racers. Somewhere behind us was the outside pace aircraft; an L-39 to ensure the outer racers did not encroach on the east deadline set up for race starts.

Coming over the top, Hinton rolled the T-33 inverted and we picked up the pack as they got past pylon three. We were inverted and rolling left to level. As the racers turned pylon four and banked left, we were in a perfect perch to watch the race and be of assistance. (Yes; keeping the camera up during the pull was difficult...)

For the next several minutes, we had a perfect seat for the race. Gibson, Dawson and Ezell were really going at it; the crowd must be going nuts. We, on the other hand, were trawling over the course in quiet, air conditioned comfort and relative silence. Hinton made an occasional comment, and asked if I had the last three racers in sight. Pardue was coming around pylon eight at the time, and Bailey and Rhino were right ahead of him. Everybody was still in the race and running well.

The shadows were much easier to pick out than the actual aircraft were. By estimate, the front three Furies were never more than a second or less apart. Gibson, by his admission, had a slower airplane than Dawson did, but he kept a extremely tight line around the course and gave no quarter. Dawson, forced to fly outside, couldnít quite make a pass yet, but never gave up. Ezell was right behind them ready to take advantage of any mistake by the two ahead.

"Thatís a good race they have going there," Hinton said over the intercom. Gibson was really keeping a tight, low line through the race. Too low, in fact. After the race, he was fined for low flying. His speed was just over 426 mph. Dawson had managed to get by Gibson, and took first place at 428 mph. Ezell was a close third at 425 mph.

As the racers flashed by the home pylon, it was surprising to see how quickly they zoom climbed into cooldown. All of a sudden, a few of the racers were quite a bit closer. Hinton kept his orbit and we continued to count racers and keep track of them. Itís not out of the ordinary to have a race plane finish the race and have a serious mayday; Hinton was still on the job and paying close attention.

As the final racer touched down, Hinton gave me a heads-up for the G he was about to put on the T-33. My G tolerance is pretty good from aerobatic flying, but the jet is a bit different. This is sustained G, and Hinton honked the puppy around in another 4-G turn for an overhead approach. I was hoping we could "clean up" the pylons, but it wasnít to be. We entered final, pitched out left, and slowed to gear and flap speed. Once the aircraft was configured, Hinton added some power to maintain speed and touched down smoothly. Once slowed, the canopy came up and I safed my seat by putting the pin back in the slot below the right ejection handle.

We followed the last racer to the ramp and shut down. Game over. Grin on. Eldridge was there with bottles of water for Hinton and myself. We unstrapped and climbed out. Hinton seemed pleased that the race went so well - no maydays and no problems. Just another day at the office...

But Sometimes - Boom...

Reno 2003 went off with only a few major maydays, and several minor ones. During Sundayís gold race, Hinton was orbiting over the course at 10,000 feet when the Merlin in Bob Buttonís Voodoo went south. Pilot Matt Jackson had been in that position before. The connecting rod for the number six cylinder in the B-bank broke, cracking the case of the engine and rendering any further work by the motor a moot point. Jackson pulled up, called a mayday, and set up for a gliding approach to runway 26.

Hinton split-Síd and was on Jacksonís wing giving him the once over. "I was on him in less than a minute," Hinton recalled. "Matt had a good approach. I told him he appeared clean with no oil, and the only smoke was coming from the left stacks. His gear was down, and I reminded him that his prop was all the way back, so his hydraulics may act slow when he put the flaps down. I also reminded him to get over to the side of the runway when he rolled out so he wouldnít close the runway."

The race pilots know about the "cold side" of the runway; the place you want to come to a stop if you donít have power to taxi off the runway. It keeps one side open so other racers can use it if needed.

Hinton reflects on Jacksonís mayday and said, "Matt did an excellent job. I usually only try and be a calm voice to the mayday guy. He has his hands full, and in the excitement, he also may have a lot going on his crew radio as well. I watch a mayday aircraft's speed, altitude and his approach. I will point out things, in my opinion, that can only help him. He has a lot to do without my words to confuse him."

Recent Past

During his time as the pace and safety pilot, Hinton has seen a good number of racers with failed engines, fires, and other assorted problems. "I have helped a few by advising them to turn back towards the airport or point out they are too fast on final," he said. "Sherman Smoot, a few years back, pulled out with a blown engine on the Yak. I chased him, and when he got it on the ground he was going to run off the end of runway 14 and over the cliff. I advised him of the runway remaining as he rolled along, and when he couldn't stop, I advised him to ground loop. That was one of the bad ones. He wasn't hurt, but the plane was wrecked."

"One time, I chased Lyle around during a mayday. He set up for a runway 17 landing with smoke comming out around the cowl. He was a little high, but what caught my eye was he was shedding exhaust stacks off the plane. He had smoke but I told him there was no visible fire. His voice was much calmer over the radio after I told him that," Hinton said. "He made a good approach and landing."

Hinton has a lot to deal with as he orbits the field and helps blown-up racers. Multi-tasking is a high priority; knowing where eight planes are at all times, which one is a mayday, and what runways are available get mixed together. Then you throw in some radio work, flying your own aircraft, and knowing what the winds and weather are doing.

"I try also to keep track of the runways. I have seen trucks driving and parking on the runways during a race," he said. "RARA race control does a good job; but they can't see the back of the airport during a race like I can." Hinton also thinks the T-33 is a really good airplane for this particular job. "It not only has good speed, but it also has great ability to catch up and slow down. I can get on anybody anywhere on the course in a short period of time. I can fly right next to them at their speeds; then I can push it up and get right back in the orbit again when the emergency is terminated. A swept wing machine would not do as good a job," he said.


Unlimited air racing is a terribly unforgiving activity. Men - good men - have died doing it. Although every accident or loss of life is painful, the numbers would be much higher if we didnít have the pace/safety aspect of the races. The pilots hang it way out over the edge, and put themselves in an environment that is hot, loud, full of vibration, and very stressful. As humans, the right actions or decisions are not always made. Thatís why Bob Hoover and Steve Hinton have made important contributions. In no uncertain terms, they have directly saved lives out there. They have flown above it all and have provided a calm voice to almost every race pilot that has said the word Ďmayday!í

Warbird Aero Press would like to thank Steve Hinton and Mike Houghton for their assistance with this article.

Story and Photos Copyright by Scott Germain 2003.

Above: Stead from 10,000 feet.

Above: Stewart Dawson

Above: Hoot - Always looking... always watching...

Above: Author with Steve Hinton