So You Want To Be a Race Pilot..?
Wishing is One Thing... Reality is Something Different!
Story By Scott Germain -
Photos by Scott Germain and Gerald Liang

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Strapping into a modified Mustang or Sea Fury sounds like a lot of fun. Fans and pilots alike watch the Reno National Championship Air Races from the grandstands or the pits and quietly wish it was them out there. Sure - itís one thing to say and wish that, but itís another to realize the cost, sacrifice and environment you are wishing to be in. Do you really want to push a Merlin to 140 inches and 3,400 rpm? Do you really want to fly at 100 feet and 490 mph with several other aircraft?

The big names of unlimited air racing have shared their experiences and outlook so you can make up your mind.


Bob Hoover - Pace and Safety Pilot - P-51D Mustang


"I think the most significant thing is be calm. Donít think youíre the only person that gets excited. I donít know of any aviator thatís in a crisis that isnít excited. The important thing is to really control that excitement. Youíve got to be on top of things at all times.

You need to be thinking, ĎWhat am I going to do if this happens?í You donít just have an engine failure, you have something else that comes with it; oil all over the windshield, fire, or smoke it the cockpit. Any number of things could spell disaster for you. If you think it all out, thatís a big step in the right direction.

I remember one occasion when Rick Brickert was on fire in Dago Red. I mean, he really had a bad one. He was covered in oil and smoke, and he had jettisoned his canopy. I was sitting right there on his wing, and Iím telling you he couldnít see anything. I was telling him to turn left, now back to the right, easy does it... Talked him right through it. It took 13 minutes for the fire trucks to get to him on the runway. But he had done everything correctly."


Brian Sanders - "Dreadnought" Super Sea Fury


"You want somebody whoís willing to take a bit of a chance, but knows the limitations. Itís what they talk about with a fighter pilot. You donít want somebody out there, as they say, with their hair on fire. You donít want to make a bad decision and not only jeopardize your life, but somebody elseís. But you want to be aggressive. Thereís a fine balance there.

Youíve got to be able to fly formation and watch the guys on both sides of you. Youíre primary objective is not to hit the guy youíre following; but you canít always trust the guy thatís on your wing. Itís a difficult thing to keep an eye out on both sides of you. Then things get more complicated... Youíre turning on systems, bringing the power up, closing the coolant doors, bringing the water on, monitoring pressures and temperatures. All the while youíre flying formation and coming down the chute. It can get pretty busy.

I was in it at full power, and I was seeing the most horsepower weíve ever seen in Dreadnought - 75 inches and 3,000 rpm. It was pulling some really good manifold pressure. The most I had seen before was 72 inches. I was pulling enough MP so the temperature on the plugs started to break them down. I heard a tone change in the airplane, and then it backfired through the carburetor. It sneezed hard. Itís impressive from the cockpit, but it didnít throw me around or anything. I told Dennis, ĎIím getting out of it," which was an unfortunate choice of words. What I meant was I was getting out of the power. Everybody with a radio thought I was going to bail out of the airplane. I have the distinction of backfiring Dreadnought twice, and still get chided about it."


Skip Holm - Multiple Unlimited Racers


"I think you have to spend ten percent of your time flying and the rest enjoying it. Otherwise, youíre never gonna win. Youíre never gonna get around. Also, you canít be flying the airplane now, youíve got to be flying it ten to fifteen seconds ahead of you. If you donít do that, the airplane wonít go. Finally; itís better to be lucky. When I was flying Stiletto, I wore a shirt that said, ĎBetter to be lucky than good.í The owner of the airplane, Alan Preston, had a shirt that said, ĎBetter to be rich than lucky.í

Ninety percent of the guys out there could never fly a race and win, because they donít have the skills to push the power up. Theyíre too afraid to die or that somebody is going to kill them. Itís kind of an individual spirit thing. Thereís only one guy in there; you donít see a four man racer.

In Tsunami, at the start of Sundayís race, I almost ran it into the hill out there because the trim ran away on it. I stopped racing, initially, and I pulled the power off of it. After I got the trim all squared away, I had only come up to 90 inches and 3,200 rpm on the first lap. I only got a half lap behind at that power setting, which kind of amazed me. It also surprised me that nobody else passed me.

The second test flight I did in Tsunami, I had asked JR how fast heíd had the airplane. He said .8 Mach and 460 knots.. So I take the airplane up over the top of the airport and start diving it down across the runway. I was doing 447 - 450 indicated, and about .78 Mach. About 50 feet over the runway, the airplane just exploded. The whole bottom scoop came off the airplane, and it scattered pieces from one end of the airport to the other. I pulled up and landed. JR asked how fast I had the airplane going, and I said 447 and .78. He said, ĎWhat!?!? Weíve never had the airplane that fast before!í I reminded him he told me it had been to .8 and 450. JR said, ĎYeah, but I was lying.í"


Bill "Rhino" Rheinschild  - "Risky Business" P-51D Mustang


"People think that race pilots are reckless, but thatís not what I think. I think that race pilots are very precalculated. Youíre flying - obviously - very fast and very close to the ground. You use your tremendous hand-eye coordination, quicker reflexes, and putting all the things youíve learned to use.

There are a lot of race pilots that we know about that probably donít have great pilot skills or ability. Some of them are no longer with us. Some of them are very good friends of mine. Most of the old race pilots are ex-military. Tiger, myself and Billy Speer were probably among the few non-military unlimited air racers.

Rick Brickert and I didnít get along 100 percent of the time, but he was a very good person. All of us basically watched him crash in the Pond Racer. He, apparently, had a double engine failure and wasnít able to bring the aircraft back to the field. That was a tragedy. I still feel like I can pick up the phone and call him, like it didnít really happen. But heís really no longer here. Thatís pretty difficult; not because Iím afraid itís going to happen to me. It just takes a lot of the fire out of it. Is air racing that much fun to lose your life?

When I go out there, Iím thinking this the most stupid thing in the world. This is a tremendous waste of energy, time and effort, and there is absolutely no reason to be out here because itís not even fun any more. By the time you join up, youíre heart rate is a little higher, and now itís pretty cool. This is ok! This is worth it now. To think about all the great aviators that have preceded me in this exact same position in the sky. Itís such an honor to be there. By the time youíre coming down the chute, itís ĎLook out, sucker!í During the race, itís the longest and shortest period of time. Why are these laps taking so long to finish? When itís over, you wonder Ďwhat happened?í"


Bill "Tiger" Destefani  - "Strega" P-51D Mustang

"I think itís more than just flying, Ďcause there are some pilots up there that got a lot of hours - thousands of hours - that simply canít fly the pylons. There are some up there who donít have thousands of hours, but they can fly the pylons. When it comes to racing, I think it comes down to having the will to win. We understand that you have to have definite pilot skills - thatís a known. The ability to open your mind up and learn from the guys that have already done it. If you have those two attitudes, you can do it. You gotta look - and watch - all the time.

I only go to win. Thatís the only reason that keeps me racing. The headaches of running a racer, putting up with 12 different minds, different crew attitudes, putting up with all that bullshit over as many years as Iíve done it. The only reward is when youíre coming down the chute and you put that thing to full power. So "competitive" is the only reason I go out. I only go to win.

The best mayday I had was when we blew an engine completely up. Iíve got it wicked up to 120 inches and calling for the qualifying clock coming around the backside at pylons five and six. At about six, it goes Ďbruuuuuup!í No big deal... I just started climbing and circle to the left, and Iím looking good to come right around on 14. Iím watching - all the time watching... Iím trying to get it slowed down to gear speed, and pull the nose up even more. I hit 170 and select gear down, and then the engine quits totally. I lay it over to the left and Iím headed for that runway and about one-third of the way down it. I start feeling a pull on my shoulder straps. This thing is decelerating. What I donít know is the engine is totally blown up. Thereís no more pressure to the propeller, and the blades have gone to flat pitch.

So now Iím committed. Iím not going to want any flaps now. Iíll save them until the last second. The Mustang propeller in flat pitch is equal to full flaps. I keep nosing it over, nosing it over to probably thirty degrees to maintain speed. And itís still decelerating! About halfway down, Iím thinking, ĎJesus... I hope I can make the overrun!í All kinds of smoke is coming off of the right side of the engine, so I pull the fire handle on the right side. I washed the window once. I donít know if I am going to make it. Iím coming, Iím looking, Iím flaring, Iím holding, Iím holding, and I see the black of the runway.

From the point I see the black to the time I touch is one second. The only reason I know that is we got film. Then I pulled the left fire extinguisher. That was the hairiest one."


 Lyle Shelton - "Rare Bear" F8F Bearcat


"You need to have a competitive nature, a competitive instinct. You have to have a background in demanding flying; crop dusting, military flying or some pretty hard aerobatic flying. You have to maneuver in a gaggle safely. You have to observe some of the basic safety rules that become second nature in military formation flying.

The cockpit is a hostile environment, thatís for sure. We thought it was about 160 degrees in there, but weíve rigged it so it isnít so hot any more. The noise; you can hardly hear the radio the engine is so loud. A lot of times you miss transmissions because itís kind of garbled and thereís so damn much noise. I find that when Iím really working, like the 1991 race, I was gasping for oxygen. I couldnít get enough oxygen for my body.

At the top end, it gets to be a two-handed affair. The controls get pretty stiff at speed. If youíre running 450 up at Reno, one hand is ok. But you get up around 480, and now youíre two hands on the stick to control the airplane. The -51 has stiffer ailerons, so I know damn well those guys have two hands on the stick up in those speed ranges.

My 1992 engine failure was one of the hairiest ones I ever had. I got a pretty good bang out of the engine on the west side of the course. Coming up the north side it started popping and banging pretty good, and I knew it was all over. I declared a mayday and pulled up, got the prop back and started looking around at where I was going to put it down. Iíve been there. It certainly wasnít the first time I had gotten into a deal.

I was coming off where I could either come back in on 14 or the closed runway, 17. I turned back to the south, but the engine was shaking so badly. I was letting it idle, so if you need a little nudge of power to help you over the fence, itís there. This damn thing was shaking so badly, I jerked the mag switch off and shut it down. My sink rate picked up, so I wasnít sure I could make 14, so I turned into 17, which is wrong way with the world out there. I kept about 160 knots and made the runway alright. It was all business; I was as busy as I could be. It had my full, undivided attention."

This story and photos are Copyright 2002 by Scott Germain and Gerald Liang. All Rights Reserved.

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