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2005 Reno National Championship Air Races
Reno Stead Airport
Air Racing Photo Report
By: David Leininger

Texan Wrangling at Reno

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North American AT-6/SNJ Racing

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The arrival of September brings with it the changing of the seasons as the sweltering summer temperatures give way to the milder conditions of fall. September also brings into focus the most spectacular of all motor sports; air racing. In September, Stead Field transforms from a sleepy little airport into a bustling hive for men, women and machines all having arrived in search of one thing, speed.

The Reno National Championship Air Races is the longest running air racing venue. Having survived 42 years the event continues to gather interest featuring no less than six racing classes. From the midget Formula One racers to the monstrous Unlimiteds there is something for any aviation enthusiasts seeking a fix for their speed addiction.

Firmly embedded amongst these different types of racers is the T-6 Class. Lacking the glamour of the more popular Unlimiteds, who streak around the pylons with their beastly powerplants, the T-6 class prides itself as being the most competitive of all races. What its racers lack in flash and speed they make up in heart pounding excitement.

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The class is governed by a set of competition rules, which limit the changes a team can make to the airframe. Thus, the end result is basic stock aircraft competing against one another. Since the majority of the racers are so evenly matched it is often the skills of the pilot that make the difference in the outcome of a race. The results are races filled with hair-raising excitement and photo finishes. At the 2005 event, I sat down with some of the participants in the class and its president and discussed where the class stacks up and where it is heading.

editor's note: At the time this story was written, class elections were pending. Subsequent to that time, then president Steve Dilda was replaced with current (as of September 2005) president John Zayac.

Before the T-6/SNJ Class began battling around the pylons on the high desert of Nevada, their beginnings can be traced to the Halle Trophy Races for women, named after a Cleveland department store in the late 1940's. Qualified women pilots were given a race of their own to compete in and these petite aviatrixes became instant favorites with the crowds. In the first race held in 1946 Marge Hurlbert piloted her racer to victory with a top speed of 200.6 mph. The following year Ruth Johnson blistered the racecourse with a speed of 239 mph while taking home the Halle Trophy. It should be noted that no rules governed these races and full advantage was taken as Ruth’s racer sported a race canopy.

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The cancellation of the Cleveland Air Races saw the end for the sport and it would not be until 1964 that air racing would make its return. The vision of Bill Stead brought air racing to the Nevada high desert and revived an all but forgotten sport. And in 1967 the T-6/SNJ Class races were introduced as an exhibition at Reno. The following year Reno held the first sanctioned T-6 races and an astounding seventeen racers made the journey to compete. Thus began the thirty-eight year history of the T-6/SNJ class.

In 1997 Steve Dilda was asked by the Board of Directors of the class to fill the position of Class President when the then-acting president was involved in an aircraft related accident and suffered serious injuries and could not fulfill his duties. Dilda’s previous experience as an instructor pilot and qualification as the pace pilot made for a natural progressive step. Dilda was honored to step in and lead the class. As president, he immediately set goals for the continued success of the class.

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The first goal Dilda set would address the need to improve the growth of the class. "I am looking at a ten year, fifteen year and twenty year plan for this class," he said. The class had a number of older pilots and the need for new blood into the class was a priority for continued growth. Taking from his twenty-seven years in the military, Dilda embarked on a recruitment program getting potential pilots interested in the class and showing them what a good time it is to participate. "Yes its very dangerous, yes it’s a PHD in aviation", he explained, "but over the years bring onboard one or two or three new racers is the way to grow the class."

The second goal he set was to formally incorporate the association in order to protect it and build a trust so that when the lean years strike the association can continue on. Over the past five years Dilda has accomplished the first portion of his plan by expanding the participants and has put away funding for the continued survival of the class.

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When he took over the position of president in 1997, Dilda estimates the average age of the pilots was late 50's to early 60's. Today, he believes the average age is in the mid 40's. In addition to these two goals, Dilda set out to put enough money in the bank to not only pay for the purses, but pay for the expenses of the crew chiefs for each participating team. "What I mean by that is to pay for their expenses to come to Reno and help put on this event," Dilda said. "Race pilots are race pilots, but crew chiefs ensure the safe condition of these racers and without them we would not be able to hold this event. It is important that we, as a class, support their efforts, and it has become my responsibility to make sure they are available."

Dilda is passionate about the safety of the class, and although this is an exciting and amazing sport, it has a high degree of danger. He feels that the way you minimize the dangers is to have safety awareness whenever possible. It has become Dilda’s belief that safety is not something that can be quantified; yet, in contrast you can clearly see the opposite of safety. "You can measure the number of accidents and fatalities." Dilda explained. "You can not measure the number of engine failures and stuck landing gear that ended with the safe landing of the aircraft." >>continue>>

Unless otherwise noted, photography by the author

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