Maydays, Mistakes and Confessions at PRS
Story and Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press.

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Aviators that come to the annual Pylon Racing Seminar have several goals to achieve; they want to build and practice their racing skills, learn everything they can about the racing environment, and pass their final checkride. What they do not want to do is make some sort of mistake that would, quite possibly, be fatal. Although PRS is a learning environment, almost all of the flying is at extremely low level, so problems and mistakes are critical.

A veteran unlimited class pilot was renewing his racing credential at Reno this past June. John Penney races Lyle Sheltonís Rare Bear; the highly modified Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat. The aircraft is one of the fastest pylon racers in history, and holds the 3Km. piston engine speed record at just over 528 mph. It is an impressive machine that requires upper skill to fly.

Since Rare Bear had been out of competition for several years, the new crew was busy getting the aircraft back in shape for this yearsí race. They were taking advantage of the waivered airspace during PRS to get the aircraft dialed in and to get some course time.

Early Friday morning, the aircraft launched on a local test flight over the airport. Penney made a normal takeoff and orbited overhead to check power settings and run some numbers. Even though the power wasnít up very much, the Bearcat was moving along pretty good.

To end the flight, Penney brought the racer down the runway on a low and relatively slow pass for the crew. After he turned a wide downwind, the engine cut out. Penney was low and slow, and was not in a position to make his runway of intended use. Penney racked the airplane into a left 270 degree turn, got the gear down, and landed on Steadís runway 14. Tragedy had been averted. (Link to Video)

Shortly afterward, a mass pilot briefing was held to begin the 2003 Pylon Racing Seminar. Pilots from all race classes were present in the Room of Hard Benches for a brief that covered race procedures, airport operations, local frequencies, weather and emergencies - both simulated and real. Each "student" race pilot was listening carefully. After the brief, one man rose and asked to address the entire group. He wasnít about to regale us with a "there I was..." story. He was about to come clean and confess his mistake in front of his peers so others could learn. This is what John Penney he had to say.

My name is John Penney, and I fly one of the unlimiteds called Rare Bear. We had a situation this morning that Iíd like to share with all of you new guys - just to give you some perspective. In retrospect, I did some things wrong this morning.

I was up on a shakedown flight. We hadnít flown Rare Bear in a couple of months, so we wanted to do a shakedown flight and check the systems and put on just a little bit of power, which we did. Everything seemed to be just fine, but as I was coming out of the power and into cool down, something just didnít seem as smooth as I thought it should be. I did a check of the four different mag switches, and everything was fine there. I checked my mixture and everything was fine there. It wasnít like it was quitting, but it didnít have that Ďsweetí feel to it. I did transmit to my crew chief that I didnít like it and was going to bring the airplane back. At that point, I didnít feel compelled to declare an emergency; I didnít feel it was appropriate at that point.

As I came down out of cool down and brought the power back, it seemed to be running smoothly. I thought it might have been my imagination. That was my first mistake - that the roughness was just my imagination. As it turns out, eventually, it wasnít. Instead of setting up for a precautionary landing, conserving my energy and making sure that if anything went wrong I could get it to a runway, I called the tower and requested a clearance to come in and do a pitch-out. So I made a pass down the runway and pulled up to the downwind. Everything was fine.

As the airspeed was coming back to the gear speed, I started bringing the power up to preserve my speed so I could get it to the runway. I was still thinking things were normal. At this point, the engine started running fairly rough. I decided to change the power setting a little bit, but I didnít want to bring the power back... At that point, it started quitting on me. It gave me a spot of bother. I didnít feel I had the energy and airspeed to make 26, so I changed my plan to land on 14.

The biggest mistake I made, was not taking my airplane to a position that would ensure an appropriate amount of energy to make it to whatever runway I wanted to go to if it turned to shit. I want to allow you new guys to think about this for a little bit. When I made that transmission to my crew chief that things didnít feel right, I should have stuck with my plan. In not doing that, and flying down initial and pitching out, I exposed myself unnecessarily and had gotten myself into a situation at low altitude and low airspeed. I didnít have any options. Ultimately, the engine was quitting and was going up and down. I didnít think I could land on 14 okay.

If there is something that doesnít seem quite right to you, donít compromise that assessment. Go ahead and stick with the plan to proceed as conservatively as you can. I didnít. Luckily, it turned out ok. But it could have turned out a whole lot different. For those of you who were out there, you saw how the airplane was sinking and coming on down. I didnít have anything left.

When anything isnít right, take the most conservative route. Maneuver your airplane to preserve your airspeed, energy and altitude state so you can make the runway.

Thanks to John Penney.

Story and Photos Copyright 2003 by Scott Germain - All Rights Reserved.