Reno Air Racing: Thunder mustang Update!

Miss Ashley II: Learstang Gets New Motor
(and a new look!)


Since first reporting on this hybrid custom built marriage of old and new, we've become avid watchers of the airplane and the quest for Go to AAFO.COM Story "Seattle Mystery Plane Unvield"speed by the dedicated team behind it. If you've been following with us, you know of their trials and results to date.....Getting this airplane in the sky is the result of *many* years of hard work. We came to the story early in the flight testing phase after hearing rumors of a "strange" new craft under construction in Washington State. June of 1997 found AAFO.COM lucky enough to be in possession of some of the first photos taken of the yet-to-be-painted airplane caught during testing at her home base. (thanks to Roger Byarlay) Since that time we watched the impressive first showing at Reno '97..... It was clear there, this airplane was one to watch. That it hit the first race with barely over 50 hours on the tach and was competitive, showed the level of planning and engineering in this beautiful plane. The potential for much higher speeds once perfected was also apparent. (she looks fast sitting still!)

We waited with eager anticipation for the results of modifications made during the off season last winter and spring. With the addition of nitrous injection and airflow enhancing modifications, the slick Courtaulds Aerospace sponsored racer had everyone buzzing this year at Reno. Was she "there" yet?.... Had they found the sweet spot?.... One of the best stories of the week at Reno '98 was just what was going on in the MA2 pit! Pit rumors flowed freely, spurred by the team's religious adherence to Rolls Royce factory maintenance procedures requiring partial disassembly of the engine after each engine over-speed/power cycle. (this is part of the fun of early week activity at Reno!) MA2 builder, Bill Rogers, told us at the time of their methodical "baseline" testing procedures. They wanted to know exactly where they went with each change made. This step by step approach also fueled the pit watchers rumor mill...

Around mid-week, BIG smiles in the Miss Ashley pit, and cessation of work on the airplane got *everyone's* attention.... They had indeed found a sweet spot. Was she going to show us just how fast that slick wing and big engine could move her? -Yes and No- As with all projects of this level of complexity, things can go wrong... And indeed, things did begin going wrong for the Levitz/Rogers Racing-Miss Ashley II team..... Following some promising speed runs, (prompting the smiles in the MA2 pit and some furrowed brows in a few other pits) we awaited the beginning of the Heat Races. Friday's race looked very promising for MA2, then the gremlins show their ugly heads. An ongoing gear door weakness (gear has to be retracted at fairly low airspeeds or slipstream overpowers doors) bites MA2.... Pilot, Gary Levitz, has a gear door hang, then rip off during recycle of gear.... She can not come up to speed and Gary finishes well back in the pack.

The crew comes up with a spare door to cover the wheels and she's ready for Saturday's Heat Race. Another problem shows it's hand. This time Gary runs out of water for the induction cooling system, this actually sets the stage for the rest of this story.... Though they are unaware of it, the engine is damaged! The big Griff is not going to have an easy go of it in Sunday's race either, when Jonathan L.Seagull gives MA2 the "bird" !

Onward to the present..... Recently, we spoke with Bill Rogers about the team's progress and learned of the damage to the engine. Bill tells us.. "When we got back here[Washington] Gary told us it's was just not pulling horsepower.... We pulled it back in.... we borscoped both the cylinders and the blower, pulled the intake off and cleaned the backfire screen then we did a compression check..... We found that the number 6 [cylinder]...B6 was zero! All of the B-bank was about 30 over 70... So we decided ....time to change engines.... it was intake valves that failed"

We asked Bill if this was related to the Bird ingestion Sunday......

"We haven't had a chance to look at them yet [valves] we just pulled the engine out and put the other one in. With this engine the compression is all the difference in the world."

During the Heat Race on Saturday, (the one with the double mayday) we had noted a drastic power reduction by Levitz, on the last lap of the event..... We asked Bill about this...

"That's because he was out of water....and probably was out of water for a lap. We got the induction temps up so high if it'd been a Merlin it would have gone away."

Some followers of Reno Air Racing tend to discount the Griffon engine, particularly the version in use by Miss Ashley II, as being underpowered and unable to take the strain of overboosting or other methods of wringing out more power. To date, the results with MA2's Griff have proven to dispel this view. In fact, we've learned due to the restrictions in the induction system caused by the unexpected Sunday...."meal"..... the blower produced some unexpectedly high manifold pressures, it held up quite well under the stress. Above mentioned damages aside, the engine ran well enough finish third on Saturday at 428.717... Then bird strike and all, to place 4th in the final race on Sunday. The Griffon still had enough left to fly home to Washington. Bill tells us...."We've talked to the Rolls Royce engineers.We've got the last in the line of the Rolls Royce V-12 engines. They did not make them worse as they developed them.".... Looks like the engineers know what they are talking about.

We have heard the term "brand new out-of-the-box" relating to the team's engine supply. Bill explains: "They're all fresh out of the box, Rolls Royce overhauls." ... This engine is in fairly good supply and is far less costly to own and operate than the far more rare, more highly stressed, Rolls Royce Merlin engine. We suspect as the development of the engine in MA2 continues, we will begin to see more of the Griffons show up in competition.

Back to the problems that cropped up at Reno for the team... In addition to the engine problems, it was found that during high speed runs that the landing gear doors were being blown slightly open causing a ton of drag for Gary and MA2 to overcome..... "that had to be worth 15 MPH" Bill tells us...."One of our big projects....our first project, is gonna be the gear doors......we're gonna go thru em and do whatever it takes to make them stay up."

The team also plans to take a very close look at the belly scoop on the "Learstang". This is an area known to hold the key to much speed in the Mustang fuselage..... Exactly what is needed, and how it is done by the teams that have made the modifications, is a very closely guarded Reno secret.... But there is speed in the teens to be gained there!.... If you look at the potential in the scoop area, subtract the loss of speed due to the above mentioned problems, add in the as-yet untapped total potential of the big Griffon....You begin to see just why we watch this thing so closely!

Just making race planes fast is not all the teams that race Reno contend with. As with any "public figure", appearances and showings are in the schedule for Miss Ashley II and company. The NBAA (National Business Aircraft Assn.) convention was host to one of these appearances by the Learstang. This being scheduled shortly after Reno, the team had it's hands full.. "We repainted the airplane, changed the engine, built a new composite gear door for it, then flew it down to Vegas.... Did all that in a month, we were pretty busy." Rogers told us.

As usual, MA2's new paint looks great but there's a surprise.... Courtaulds Aerospace is the coating of choice for many commercial aircraft, and anyone that has seen Miss Ashley II will attest to the quality of their paints. They now have something new to offer, your Cessna or better yet your Glassair or Lancair can now wear the same high quality coatings. Courtaulds chose NBAA to introduce Desothane HS, their new Topcoat product line available to General Aviation. She's now flying the "Desothane HS" flag on her sleek sides! We were unable to get a photo of the new "look" for this publishing but look here soon for an update!

AAFO.COM will continue to watch the progress of this promising Unlimited Reno entry.... Stay tuned for more on this ongoing quest for speed!

See and hear Miss Ashley II rip down the "Valley of Speed"!

story by: Wayne Sagar
graphics by: Mark Kallio and Wayne Sagar

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