The Very Best In Aviation and Air Race News and Photography

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

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Texan Wrangling at Reno

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North American AT-6/SNJ Racing

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His primary concern at Reno is the safety of the pilots and the safety of the spectators. As he puts it, if he can keep the spectators safe by keeping the pilots out of their way, he can also keep the pilots safe. Dilda described the situation like this; "You are taking a sixty year old aircraft and diving it to the ground at redline RPM's and redline speeds. Six racers flying wingtip-to-wingtip, all vying for the same geographic space in time and trying to get there at the same time. And then at only 50 feet off the ground, roll into an 80 degree banking turn, level off, and head for the next pylon." That is the description for danger at the highest level in this sport and to perform at that level under those conditions takes a great deal of concentration, training and discipline.

Listening to Dilda describe those conditions immediately drove home the importance for safety. That safety discipline was put to the test during a heat race when a veteran pilot with many years of experience and training had a split second lapse and turned right during the start of the race. "That turn to the right immediately put into danger six other pilots." Dilda said. In a split second, instincts took over as the other racers made whatever evasive maneuvers necessary to save both themselves and their aircraft. Loss of life was avoided, and lessons learned in the name of safety. Once back on the ground the pilots who participated in the race gathered and discussed what took place on the course without finger pointing nor did heated tempers dominated the debriefing. The class studies how they fly the racecourse to a painfully fine degree. Each aspect of the race is studied and carefully executed.

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Camaraderie in the pits

The "right turn event" brought into focus one aspect of the race that had not been studied and trained enough. At the release point when seven racers are lined abreast, coming down the chute at redline settings will be a point of future training and thorough review. Studying this event will change the way the class approaches training for the release of a race from now on. Air racing is an issue of trust. " Each one of these racers must completely trust the others racers on their wingtips." Dilda said. "If not, they have no business starting their aircraft and taxing out to race." Dilda’s philosophy was echoed by current T-6/SNJ champion Al Goss, who said, "You have to develop a trust with the pilots you are flying with, and they have to do the same with you. The guys have been really safety conscious, and it has shown with no fatal incidents in recent years" Goss also credits the class’ growth and popularity within the aviation community to the focus on safety.

The T-6 Class boasts tremendous esprit de corps amongst its members. Sure, the pressures of competition may lead to bickering among pilots, but when the racers have come to a stop and the switches have been turned off these competitors climb out of their aircraft and walk the ramp shaking hands with their competitors.

As competitive as the class is, if one of the other racers needs a part to continue racing, the others collectively will do everything within their power to get that racer back in the air. The thought being if that racer is not available to race, then whom are they competing against? This showing of sportsmanship in the T-6 class is catching on, and friendly exchanges of assistance, parts and tools are commonplace leaving a terrific model for others to learn from.

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Speed Secrets

The T-6 Class maintains that racing aircraft must weigh no less than 4,000 pounds, to include race fuel and pilot. They have a technical inspection committee to ensure that first and foremost the aircraft are safe to fly and that any improvements to the racer fall within the rules of the committee. As Dilda put it, "We want these aircraft to look, smell and feel like T-6's." Racers are, however, encouraged to work on their aircraft, making such modifications as aerodynamic smoothing (bondo), rivet replacement, replacing dinged edges, using flush screws, and sealing up the airframe allowable under the class guidelines.

Because the racers must remain in the stock configuration, how does one make a racer faster than the rest? The most common answer to that question was "Everything is top secret." There are, all kidding aside, a couple of major changes one can make and literally thousands of smaller changes that are incorporated into these racers. It starts with the powerplant and finding the best combination of engine and propeller for the airframe. Solve that equation and you are more than half way to the checkered flag. The T-6/SNJ is a heavy aircraft, thus the next logical step is to lighten the airframe. That means anything deemed excess is removed as the racer is trimmed down to the weight limit.

Aerodynamic drag is a racers worst enemy when the objective is speed and team’s works hour after hour polishing each square inch of the surface of the airframe. A slick and smooth surface slices through the air much easier. But the most important tool to the race teams within this class is tape. That's right, tape. Every possible seam is covered. All panel latches and openings are covered and canopies sealed. Any possible area on the airframe that might slow the racer down is taped. To watch these teams as they used roll after roll of tape in an effort to bleed the racer of any resistance makes many spectators go out and buy stock in 3M.

These are the most common methods of making the T-6 fast. And keep this in mind; what might work for one team may not necessarily work for another. All of this hard work increases the safety of these aircraft, which were designed in the 1930’s and built in the 1940’s, and lends itself to the associations primary goal, safety.

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Around the pylons at Reno 2005

Wrangling a T-6 Texan around the 5-mile course at Reno takes a tremendous amount of piloting skill, discipline, patience and a certain amount of luck. The T-6 class races are some of the most fiercely contested races at Reno and this year was no exception. Last years winner, Goss, was back to defend his first championship in twenty-five years of racing at Reno. Looking to claim that championship from Al was a field of twenty other racers.

The battle for gold started in earnest during qualifying when a few of the heavy hitters broke from the pack posting similar qualifying speeds. Mary Dilda, Nick Macy and Thomas Campau let their presence be known. Mary qualified a mere 15/100 of a second behind Goss while Campau recorded the same margin qualifying behind Macy. This would make for some very exciting racing during the week. The remaining field qualified with a total spread of twelve seconds separating positions five thru twenty-one. Compare those qualifying results with those of the Unlimited Class and you will find nearly forty seconds separating top qualifier and slowest qualifier. That equates to a difference of nearly 170 mph. If you are looking for excitement you need to be watching the T-6 races.

"Gentleman, you have a race." That announcement rang throughout each race pilot’s headset as they pushed the nose of their racer down towards the ground coming down the chute during heat 1C on Wednesday. Joey Sanders won the race, but all eyes were fixated on the battle for third as Jim Eberhardt literally nosed out Keith McMann, who was closely hounded by Jim Thomas who finished in fifth place. The first heat race was in the books and the excitement level for that race set the tone for the rest of the week.

Thursdays heat races sent pace makers into overdrive as Wayne Cartwright piloted Six Shooter to victory, edging out Joey Sanders in Big Red with nearly identical speeds. Cartwright's average speed for the race was 217.6 mph compared to Sanders 217.5 mph. The battle for positions three and four were just as thrilling as Dennis Buehn squeaked out a victory just ahead of John Zayac. Thursday’s gold race saw Al Goss flying Warlock and Mary Dilda flying Two of Hearts knotted up in a battle for the lead. The race resembled tight formation flying, as Mary seemed to be glued to Goss's right wing. She could not overtake the champion and refused to lose any ground either. This battle lasted from the first pylon turn to the checkered flag. Al posted an average race speed of 239.865 mph compared to Mary's 239 .424 mph. People walked away from watching the race with bloody fingers from all the chewing they were doing.

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Friday's heat races brought more of the same as competition levels increased, if that was at all possible. Heat 2C Bronze race saw rookie racer Gary Miller flying Trophy Hunter to a narrow victory over Chris Rushing who was flying Sugarfoot. Gary completed the five-lap race with an average speed of 211.687 mph to Chris' 211.449 mph. And just like the day before the race for third and fourth was just as exciting as Keith McMann battled to take third with an average speed of 203.716 mph compared to Jim Thomas' 203.405 mph.

The Silver race found racers pairing up as they jockeyed for position and a chance to bump up to the next level. Wayne Cartwright and Joey Sanders were once again evenly matched as they fought back and forth for all five laps, but it was Wayne who was victorious again crossing the home pylon a mere 2/10 of a second ahead of Sanders. Frederick telling flying Baby Boomer finished third while Dennis Buehn crossed in fourth. A battle raged for fifth and sixth place as John Zayac nosed out Gene McNeely flying Undecided. Their speeds clocked at 211.912 mph and 211.752 mph respectively for the race.

Chris Rushing outlasted Gary Miller in winning Saturdays Bronze race reversing the finish of the previous days race. Keith McMann edged out third place from Jim Eberhardt flying Archimedes and Jim Thomas and Lee Owan rounded out the field. After Thursdays nail biting Gold race the fans wondered how Saturdays Gold race would play out.

If it was at all possible Saturdays race was more intense with Al Goss and Mary Dilda trading blows like a couple of heavy weight boxers. Mary was again stuck to Al like glue, as neither was willing to yield the top spot. With Mary flying a higher line around the pylons to stay on Al's wing she had to push Two of Hearts harder or risk losing position for that last lap dash. As they rounded pylon 6 on the last lap Mary pushed the nose of the racer down to gain speed heading for the home pylon. But as hard as Mary pushed her racer Al was up to the task and maintained the slimmest of margins crossing the home pylon. Al crossed the finish line less than 2/10 of a second ahead of Mary. Again the slimmest of margins kept Mary from gaining the pole position for Sundays championship race. Nick Macy flying Six Cat finished in third while Thomas Campau flying Mystical Power came in fourth. Jim Good and Bud Granley finished fifth and sixth.

T-6/SNJ Gold

Sunday is money day at Reno and the hot topic in the T-6 pit area was about whether would be able to overtake Al in the gold race later in the day. Sunday is also the day you give everything you have and that is just what the racers of both the Silver and Gold did.

First, Joey Sanders exacted some payback by narrowly beating Wayne Cartright to capture the Silver race victory. Joey' average speed for the race was 221.135 mph. Just enough to hold back Cartright's 221.018 mph who had company behind him as Fred Telling crossed the home pylon just a half a second behind Wayne. John Zayac, Gene McNeeley and Dennis Buehn all bunched up to bring a wild finish to this one. The distance between racers crossing the home pylon was less than the length of an aircraft each.

With the Silver race in the books all that was left was the heavyweights. As the T-6's came down the chute the past races of the week set the tone for this final showdown. In interviewing Mary after the race she took me through the race. This is what she had to say about the Gold race. "The adrenaline flow was extremely high after Saturdays race and my strategy for today was to make Al make a mistake and put my prop right into his ear" She went on to say "Al is an incredibly seasoned pilot and I was not sure if I was going to be able to pull it off."

"The first lap was similar to yesterday’s race with me slightly behind him, but then I gained a little bit on him." "I am not sure what exactly happened but Al slowed down and I took the high line around him and unloaded the aircraft and found myself a couple of wings ahead of him and pulled in front and started running." "It was really eerie because I could not hear anything and no one was talking on the radio and I thought to myself, did everyone leave?" "I kept running as hard as I dared to push the aircraft and crossed the home pylon with the checkered flag waving and could not believe it."

So Mary found herself in the winner’s circle for the second time in her racing career. Mary first won in 1997 when she was asked to race Mystical Power. Al Goss raced to a second place finish followed by Nick Macy, Thomas Campau, Jim Good and Bud Granley. After witnessing the previous heat races it was hard to believe Mary would win by the largest margin of the week, seven seconds. Mary now had the victory that had eluded her in recent years despite her team’s outstanding efforts. Al Goss knows that feeling as he felt a huge weight lifted from his shoulders after winning the gold race last year. To finish second so many times and then to finally win in this highly competitive class you can't help but feel elated. Mary is thankful for the dedication her team has shown her not only this week, but all year long. "Without them I certainly would not be standing in the winners circle." Mary proudly announces. And with that Mary is the new queen of the T-6 class.

This years races were filled with drama, white knuckled excitement, and competitiveness not seen anywhere else. The class is becoming increasingly popular with the spectators and the future is looking up for the association. The T-6 class puts on a hell of a show for the spectators and as long as the class continues to grow there will be racers to compete and entertain.

Author’s note: I would like to thank the T-6/SNJ class members and class president Steve Dilda for their cooperation with this story. To all the members of the T-6/SNJ class I say this, "You are a class above so many others." May the brotherhood live on.

Unless otherwise noted, photography by the author

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RENO Air Races 2013