Bent Props & Engine Swaps

As strong winds attempted to move the surrounding desert onto the runways at Stead, the 1997 Reno National Championship Air Races wound to a close. For some race teams a change of oil and kick of the tires would suffice to get them home, a few others had a long week ahead. Several aircraft were damaged in Sunday's events, leaving more than one crew chief wondering just what went wrong. The sometimes strong Nevada winds had been a factor all week, but Sunday brought a dramatic change in direction and intensity, causing the Bi-Plane class to cancel their gold event and raising doubts for others. Pilots and race control had their hands full with the constantly changing direction and intensity of the winds, creating some confusion at times on runway choice.

On to the racing...... The 8 Unlimited Bronze class racers took the course. With Stewart Dawson in the Hawker Sea Fury FB-11 "Spirit of Texas" coming in first, Howard Pardue in the Grumman F-8 Bearcat "Bearcat" finishing a moderately close 3.47 seconds behind. Last year's T-6 Gold winner Sherman Smoot, flying "Voodoo Chile" in place of Bob Hannah, coming in third. Sherman had a close call in the last heat race on Friday. Calling a Mayday after burning a hole in one of the Merlin's pistons, Sherman skillfully brought the ailing Mustang in at reduced power. After an extremely valiant effort by the crew in an all nighter on Saturday, the "go-home" engine was installed, allowing this showing in the Bronze event. ("Voodoo Chile"and Sherman may well have been contenders in the Gold on Sunday had the race engine been installed!) Stephen Bolander, flying "Mary Bear", was moved to last place for a dead-line cut.
(no doubt the wind played a part in this incident)

The tightest race of this event went on between first time racer Vlado Lenoch, flying the beautiful P-51D "Moonbeam McSwine", against Curtis Brown , Jr. in the #281 Sea Fury. The 43/100 second difference in their finishing times showing just how close these two had been. Vlado and "Moonbeam" setadily improved their lap times all week long, this is a team to watch in coming years.

In the Unlimited Silver race, Bill Rheinschild, flying the P-51 "Risky Business" was penalized for low flying and finished second behind Dennis Sanders in "Argonaut". Brent Hisey in "Miss America" got nipped for flying too low, taking third. Skip Holm in the highly modified Sea Fury "Critical Mass" had a scare when a large piece of the right side cowl blew out. Skip saw the pieces flying by the cockpit, the engine felt OK, but not knowing what was going on he wisely elected to bring it in early. Metal fatigue, apparently, was the culprit in this mishap. Skip took the event in stride, when a crewmember asked if this had quickened his pulse, Skip replied that he'd been happy to have something to occupy his attention, having been somewhat bored by the race to that point........ I guess when you've been at it as long as Skip Holm, you've probably seen it all! Stu Eberhardt in P-51D "Merlins Magic" also called a mayday when he lost power. As of Monday "we're looking" was all the crew had to say about the cause of this failure.

Now it was time for the much awaited contest between long time rivals "Strega" piloted by Bill "Tiger" Destefani and "Rare Bear" flown this year by owner Lyle Shelton. Throw in a Sea Fury with one *VERY* large engine, "Dreadnought" flown by Brian Sanders and the less than 50hr old XP-51 Levitz/Rogers racer "Miss Ashley" piloted by Gary Levitz, and you had the mix for a great contest! As Steve Hinton, flying the T-33 pace plane, brought the racers over Peavine Mt. and cut them loose, it looked for a moment that "Bear" had the edge, with Lyle pulling ahead briefly. Could the cagey veteran have pulled a "fast" one on Tiger?

Tiger was in the lead by the first pylon, but still hot on his trail and looking as though he may just give him a race, was none other than Lyle Shelton in "Rare Bear". It was not to be though, it soon became obvious the problems that had plagued Lyle's team, since their arrival, had not completely gone away..... as it turned out it was to get worse!

Lyle fell back..... at first we heard he was out of nitrous (this is not confirmed) later we heard he'd experienced a rough engine and had radioed that fact (FlightLine's trusty Bearcat pocket scanner, decided to go south for this race, so we had to depend on what we could glean from a neighbor) Sanders in "Dreadnought" passed Lyle after he slowed, the trio finishing 1-Strega 2-Dreadnought 3-Rare Bear. The Levitz/Rogers "Miss Ashley" coming in 4th. This team, after a somewhat slow start early in the week, just kept getting faster. With only 50 hours on the aircraft, and basically an untested design they did very well indeed holding on to the number four position, with Bill Rheinschild in "Risky Business" close behind.

The wind had really begun to kick up at this point, with racers landing on both crosswind runways. Then..... "77's a definite Mayday!"..... The "Bear's" rough engine had been caused by an exhaust header break on the lower right side of the engine. The hot gasses finally burned through the magneto leads and Lyle had a complete loss of power. He elected to land on runway 18 rolling to a stop about 3/4 of the way to the end, followed closely by Tiger in "Strega" who was also in trouble, with oil from a failing prop seal limiting his visibility. The combination of the gusting winds, "Rare Bear's" position on the runway and the bad forward vision conspired to cause "Strega" to balloon on landing, then come down hard resulting in a serious prop strike on the runway and damage to the landing gear attach point.(and perhaps more...see below) Tiger then rolled to a stop just past Lyle. What a sight, these two "kings" of this sport sitting on the runway within a stone's throw of each other, both aircraft out of commission...... All other aircraft in this race landed safely. Gary Levitz electing to hold off, taking up last place in the pattern while the situation on the runways settled down.

Sunday evening brought a howling duststorm to Stead field, no work could be accomplished on the damaged aircraft by any crew under those conditions. Monday dawned with much less wind, clear skies and much activity in the pits. We listened to "Strega" crewchief, Bill Kerchenfaut, briefing Tiger on the damage at Stead Monday morning. It was clear the damage was extensive, with Kerchenfaut covering several areas of possible problems. In addition to the obvious damage to the prop, the right landing gear and attaching wing structure were visibly damaged, Tiger and Bill were also inspecting the left gear strut. Oil was leaking from the area of the radiator and oil cooler. Whether this was running down the inside of the fuselage from the bad prop seal, or coming from the gearbox or oil cooler was unclear. We heard concerns about motor mounts as well..... clearly "Strega" was very damaged, and the extent of this damage was unknown.

There was no activity around "Rare Bear" the cowl had been replaced showing the extensive burn damage to it. Lyle's damage did not look good, but was going to be a ton cheaper than Tiger's!

"Critical Mass" crewchief stated they had scrapped their original plan to cut off the edges of the damaged area and fly it as is and were going to repair the blown out cowl, patch the horizontal stabilizer (a section of the cowl had embedded itself in the tail) and fly it home. The damage to the cowl is amazing, considering it was only wind that caused it, looking as though a piston had blown through it.

That about wraps the Sunday Unlimited race story..... Stay tuned as we convert the basket of data and photos into electrons for you! We'll also be attempting to find out the fate of the damaged aircraft in the next few days.

-Wayne Sagar-

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