July 20, 2004
Chatting by The WildFire
By: Bill Pearce
Wildfire is one of
the more unusual Unlimited air racers
with perhaps the longest gestation period
of any. The years of silence with this
racer tucked away in a hangar in Mojave,
combined with its mysterious first
flight, have lead to the birth of many
rumors surrounding its past, present and
future. On a recent AAFO.COM assignment
to Mojave, I had the opportunity to check
in with Team Wildfire and separate truth
Wildfire was conceived in
the mid 70s to make Unlimited Air Racing
more affordable and save the existing war
birds seen at Reno each September. It is
thought that with affordable Unlimited
air racers, air racing as a sport will
spread to other venues across the country
while preserving WWII aircraft.
Former Director of
Science and Engineering, William H.
Statler, designed Wildfire and he is no
stranger to air racing. Bills first
design was a Goodyear midget racer for Al
Foss who built the plane in 1949. Foss
raced it as "Jinny" #94. It was
later sold to Jim Dewey and raced by his
son, Mike. It retained the #94 but was
now called "Little Mike".
Number 94s last race was in 1970,
but the airplane is still owned by Mike
Dewey in Santa Paula, CA who is restoring
it as a museum piece.
The Second aircraft to come
from Bill Statler Srs sketchpad was
for James Kistler. Assigned number 31, it
has a colorful history with many name and
owner changes. Kistler raced as "La
Jollita" and "Skeeter". It
was sold to Art Scholl who campaigned it
as "Miss San Bernardino".
Scholl managed a 3rd place finish in the
championship race of 1964, and 4th in
both 1965 and 1966. Sold to Smokey Stover
and renamed "Skeeter" again,
race 31 soldiered on with another 4th
place in 1967. 1971 Marked another owner,
Larry Borrow. "Skeeter"
returned to Reno in 1976 with Smokey
Stover at the controls once again,
finishing 1st in the Medallion race. Race
31 continued to pass through owners and
around the pylon until 1984.
In typical Unlimited
fashion, Wildfire is a low wing monoplane
with conventional undercarriage. Its wing
is an entirely custom built NASA airfoil,
attached to a heavily modified forward
airframe and a scratch-built aft
fuselage. Powered by a Pratt &
Whitney R-2800-CA-97W and propelled via a
3-blade airscrew, Wildfire is definitely
a very distinct air racer.
It was the
teams normal workday on the racer
when I arrived. I felt a bit like I was
in their way so I decide to let them work
while I took pictures; we would sit down
over lunch and discuss the racer.
Wildfire was bigger than I envisioned it.
Basically the aircraft looked complete
but many little things remained
unfinished and we all know those are the
things that take the most time.
Working on the racer on this
Friday, June 4th, were Bill Statler Sr.,
Skunk Works engineer Bill Statler Jr.,
Cal-Tech and JPL analyst Dennis Wittman,
and mechanic and auto-racer Greg Austin.
Slowly yet methodically the racer was
coming together in the hot oven that is a
hangar at Mojave, not far from Nemesis
NXT and Scaled Composites. Missing due to
work commitments were crew members Rich
Statler, Senior Vice President, System
Development, for the Mericom Corporation
and Paul Novacek, Avionics Engineer and
Vice President of Development for
Electronic Flight Solutions.
Despite my small protest, I
was treated to lunch by the crew and
began the question and answer session to
get the truth about Wildfire:
Bill Pearce AAFO.com:
What is Wildfire?
Bill Statler Jr.: It
is an Unlimited homebuilt raceplane made
to be competitive, with new designs that
did not cost a million dollars and would
not start with a WWII airplane. Id
like to preserve the ones that are left.
Behind that, we want to see racing grow
and continue. Ive been a fan since
I was five and my dad has been involved
since the 40s. We thought if we created
something like this, more people would
get into racing and the sport would grow.
If we get air racing to grow, more people
will want air racing in their town and
someday we might have 4 to 5 events per
AAFO: Wildfire uses
some T-6 in it, what is still left of the
Bill Jr.: Very
little. The main landing gear and the
tail wheel and thats about it. In
fact, the wheels and brakes arent
even off a T-6.
Bill Statler Sr.:
Theyre off a Sabreliner.
Bill Jr.: So
the gear struts are T-6 and the tailwheel
is T-6. Thats the only thing on
there thats T-6.
AAFO: Where did the
airframe come from?
Bill Jr.: Its
basically scratch built. We started with
an airframe and beefed it up. From the
cockpit aft is all new; the tail is new,
the aft fuselage is new. We took a
tubular structure in the front and
heavily beefed it up, redesigned it,
rebuilt it to take the loads and stresses
that the R-2800 was going to introduce
into this airframe. A lot of the stories
are that we took an R-2800 and mounted it
in front of a T-6 and that is not what we
AAFO: Explain the
wing and the fairings?
Bill Jr.: The wing is
built from scratch and is modeled after a
NASA airfoil that dad found. The whole
purpose that is behind the airplane is to
maintain lift so we can maintain speed on
a pylon racecourse.
Bill Sr.: The
airplane has a wide wing cord and a low
wing loading and thats to keep it
from mushing out in the turns like most
of them do.
AAFO: And the idea
behind the fairings?
Bill Jr.: The
original fairings that you see in the old
pictures are ones that we slapped on just
so we could go fly it. They were not
meant to be the final design. Now we are
redesigning the fairings with a much more
aerodynamic fairing. The engineer will
tell you all about those (pointing to
Bill Sr.: You take
section cuts through the airplane and
then calculate how much fairing area you
need at each station to make a real
smooth transition [from wing to fuselage]
as they change size to go back. It is
designed to aerodynamically smooth the
transition from wing to fuselage.
AAFO: Explain the
cowling and scoop?
Bill Jr.: Everything
on the airplane is designed for a purpose
and that big ugly scoop on top is to make
sure we get enough air into the engine so
the engine runs at its best. Taking
advantage of the aircrafts speed to
ram air into the carburetor. Its a
downdraft carburetor and the scoop
creates a rise in air pressure and slams
the air right smack into the carburetor;
the faster the plane goes, the more air
it gets, the more power it makes.
AAFO: And the cowl?
Bill Jr.: To make the
engine as cool as possible.
Bill Sr.: And you
have to let out the back what you take in
Bill Jr.: Otherwise
it will back out the front and create
drag and you are not really cooling
anymore. And that is also why we run the
spinner that we do. Its small to
let more cooling air into the cowling.
Bill Sr.: You have to
put the cooling air through the cylinder
fins. It does not do you much good to
just dump air in all around the engine;
you need to get it to flow through the
AAFO: In your own
words, describe the first flight.
Ill omit names. We made a very
serious mistake on the first flight. A
pilot came up to us and said he was a
test pilot and wanted to fly the
airplane. We thought it was great that he
Bill Sr.: He said he
was from the Air Force test pilot school.
Bill Jr.: We told him
exactly what we wanted him to do. Taxi
down the runway and see if the tail comes
Bill Sr.: First thing
you ever do with a new airplane is fly it
down the runway and land it on the
Bill Jr.: Especially
if its a taildragger. We had the
whole test flight program all laid out
and he had a copy. If you get it to
takeoff speed and the tail is not up,
obviously you have a problem that needs
to be figured out. Well, he came down the
runway and went straight up. We have it
all on tape. We were down the runway
where we expected him to come by with the
tail up and we could get it all on film.
He got halfway to us and was going
Bill Sr.: Hes
the guy that put 200 pounds in the tail.
Bill Jr.: He gets it
on the ground and he badmouths the
airplane. He says it is a bad design and
it has this wrong, it has that wrong. We
found out that he had zero time behind an
R-2800 and 30 minutes in a taildragger
the day before. The money ran out after
that and the words coming out of this
test pilots mouth did not stop for
months. He told anyone who would listen
how bad the airplanes design was
and what was wrong with it. We have been
living with that for 20 years. But it
Greg Austin: Are
there really that many rumors?
Bill Jr.: Oh, you
would not believe.
AAFO: What happened
with Skip Holm doing an engine run-up
that resulted in a nose over?
Bill Jr.: It did not
nose over. This was my fault; it was my
personal fault. On the first flight, the
test pilot insisted that we put an
additional 200 pounds of
ballast in the tail. That should have
been a warning to us and we just did not
see it. We thought he knew what he was
doing. After that flight I told the crew
to take the ballast out of the tail,
meaning the 200 pounds the test pilot
asked us to put in. All of it was taken
out instead, so now we did not have any
ballast in the tail. Again, I did not
make myself clear. It was my fault; I
take responsibility for it. So all the
ballast was taken out and when Skip was
taxing he taxied over in front of a big
hanger. He turned and the propwash hit
the front of the hanger and came back and
lifted the tail. The prop just barely hit
the ground, thats all it did.
Bill Sr.: And we have
eyewitnesses and film that show when Skip
went up on the prop tips, the elevator
was at neutral; it was not up at all.
Bill Jr.: Thats
another problem we discovered. When Skip
pulled the stick back to put the elevator
down, it stayed at neutral. But it was my
fault that all the ballast was taken out.
The neutral elevator was not Skips
fault; he had the stick back. We found
that there were some blocks that would
not allow the elevator to move as it
should have. But it never really nosed
over; it just came up far enough to tap
the prop tips.
AAFO: How much
ballast is in the tail as it sits?
Bill Jr.: Well
its going to change. Right now we
have 120 pounds and we have just put in a
heavier battery in the tail and we put in
a fire suppression system back there too.
Dennis Wittman: And
we lost a prop blade.
Bill Jr.: Thank you.
We are running a 3-blade prop rather than
the 4-blade. The 3-blade prop is more
efficient. We also took all the high
altitude gears out of the blower. So we
will have to do a weight and balance and
take some ballast out of the tail. We
will do it by weighing the airplane.
AAFO: Does Wildfire
have a center of gravity problem?
Bill Sr.: And the
wheels are not too far back. They are
AAFO: Is the ballast
solid; not any type of consumables like
ADI, fuel, or anything else?
Bill Jr.: There is no
bladder tank in the tail that we were
going to fill with water. It is bolted
down, solid lead ballast.
Bill Sr.: It is real
easy to balance this airplane. All we
have to do is weigh it and do it right.
AAFO: Where did the
prop come from?
Bill Sr.: The prop
came from a T-29, which is a military
Convair 440. We used three of the four
blades and it is a really efficient prop.
AAFO: Dave Morss is
your new test pilot, how did he get
Bill Jr.: He called
us and wanted to come down and see the
plane. We spend about 3 hours talking and
looking around. He made us an offer and
we took it. We are very happy to have him
on board. Hes a great pilot.
AAFO: Will he be the
Bill Jr.: Yes, that
is the plan.
AAFO: When will the
next flight be?
Bill Jr.: When we are
ready. For us this is not something that
we will rush. There is still a lot of
work to be done and without a major
sponsor, the work is done when we can get
AAFO: Will you make
it to Reno this year?
Bill Jr.: A couple of
months ago we were talking about if we
got a sponsor that came through to
sponsor the airplane, could we do that?
Would we do that? And we thought that if
everything goes well, well try.
Here we are and September is not far away
and we dont have a sponsor and we
will really need a sponsor to help us
with the flight test program and
thats not going to be cheap. So we
take it day by day now.
AAFO: If you can you
will be at Reno?
Bill Jr.: If
everything goes well and there are no
problems where safety would be an issue,
than we could be at Reno for static
display only. The only thing that I want
to have done other than all the
flight-testing is a paint job. I want the
aircraft painted for its Reno debut.
Theres a lot of work left;
its not impossible but we are
running out of time.
AAFO: So safety is of
paramount importance, which is what is
Bill Jr.: Thats
right and another thing that we will have
on this airplane is a telemetry system.
Some of the other racers have a basic
system, but we will have a very
sophisticated telemetry system; 64
channels on this airplane. We are going
to measure everything and some of the
constant things we will be measuring is
flutter on all the control surfaces.
Bill Sr.: We are
going to read it right here on the
ground. That guy up there in the airplane
cant read it all, he cant do
Bill Jr.: His job is
to fly it and our job is to find out if
there are problems that we need to fix.
AAFO: Czech Mate is
powered by a R-2800 and is the 420-440
MPH range which puts it in the middle of
the Gold. Using Czech Mate as a
yardstick, how will Wildfire do?
Bill Jr.: We will be
faster. The reason I say that is one;
Czech Mate does not have our wing. Two,
Czech Mate is based off a WWII era
trainer. Well be faster. Their wing
doesnt have the cord that we have,
it doesnt have the lift coefficient
that we have. As far as weight, it would
probably be about the same. But there
again, if the Yak wants to be faster they
need to get more air into that engine.
AAFO: How well do you
think Wildfire will do? What lap speeds
do you think you will see?
Bill Jr.: When we are
wired up and ready to go and the airplane
is completely debugged so to speak, we
will be in the Gold race every time. We
will be fast enough to be in the gold
Bill Sr.: Its
basically designed to go 500 MPH on the
AAFO: Do you feel
that is achievable?
Bill Sr.: Yep.
Dennis: It was also
designed 30 years ago.
Bill Jr.: Yeah, when
we designed this 30 years ago we would
have been the fastest airplane on the
course. People now have gotten a little
smarter and are doing things a little
different. Dago Red, theyre getting
speeds out of that Mustang that are
incredible, it amazes me, just amazes me.
More power to them.
AAFO: After 25 years,
when you get to Reno, is it more
important how you place or that you have
made it; a project completed?
Bill Jr.: Winning is
secondary. It would be nice to win but we
are not going up there to win. What we
want to do is introduce a homebuilt
airplane that is competitive and will
help the air races grow. In other words,
to help air racing survive.
Bill Sr.: I would
answer your question Bill by saying
were going racing to win. It might
take another 20 to get there but
were going to win.
In one sentence Bill Statler
Sr. sums up the entire essence of Team
Wildfire. The Wildfire team has been a
team longer than most of the other
Unlimited racers, despite the
technicality of never racing. Their
dedication, determination, and attitude
will be very welcome at Reno and any
other racing venue.
Due to several reasons, the
owners and crew of Wildfire have decided
not to race the airplane at Reno
2004. First, racing in
2004 would mean rushing the
flight test program, possibly at the
expense of performance.
Second, the team is still searching for,
and speaking with potential sponsors to
fund the project. A thorough flight
test program as well as adequate funding
is necessary for the team to exploit the
full potential of the race
plane. "We know what Wildfire
is capable of doing and we don't
want to settle for anything less
than top performance", says
Bill Statler Sr., designer of the race
Obviously disappointed, the
crew showed their championship team
qualities by finding the positive side of
"This will give us the
opportunity to conduct an extensive
flight test program and be 100% ready to
race full out at Reno in 2005. If we
had rushed the flight test program to
make Reno this year, we might have
missed something important".
Being in unanimous agreement
on this, the crew went back to work with
the same intensity they had been applying
to the project in the attempt to make
For additional information
on Wildfire or to help the team out by
purchasing merchandise and by becoming a
benefactor, click on over to www.wildfireairracing.com.
Bill Pearce and AAFO.com
sincerely appreciate the assistance and
hospitality of Team Wildfire. We wish
them the best of luck and are looking
forward to seeing the team in 2005.