Reno Air Racing: Update Czech Mate Forced Landing!

Sherman Smoot & "Czech Mate"
Life in the Fast Lane

Hanging a big American engine on the former Soviet Yak-11 trainer is a practice we have discussed here at some length in past reports. Something special happens when you put a large engine on the front of a relatively small airframe like the Yak-11...They begin to look like they have but one purpose.... moving forward....VERY FAST. Not only does the practice of "over-engining" make these diminutive Russian trainers look fast, they are indeed, FAST.

"Czech Mate" on the ramp after Friday's heat race

The engine of choice in this particular version is the tried and true, Pratt & Whitney R-2800, 18 cylinder radial engine. This engine, first produced in 1939, was rated at 2000 hp @2400 RPM. Improvements in fuel octane, and the engine itself, finally brought the output to 2400-2600 hp depending on the version. These outputs are based on maximum RPM and time limits of 2800 RPM at 60 inches of manifold pressure, limited to 5 minutes take-off power rating.

Now this is a LOT of power....*BUT* we already know it takes power to go fast and fast is good..... but faster is always better and that takes MORE POWER! At Reno the limits of engines and airframes are tested, sometimes those limits are found just a bit shy of where they were expected to be. Saturday's Gold Class Heat Race proved to be an exciting one for at least one surprised race pilot as that limit showed itself to be slightly below what was planned for.

Sherman Smoot has been around airplanes and Air Racing long enough to know what it takes to get the most out of a race plane. As he pushed toward the "edge" at the beginning of the race, at over 3000 RPM and "around" 80 inches of manifold pressure, the weak link in his engine showed its ugly head. A connecting rod failed on the front row of cylinders breaking a hole in the crankcase. Smoke and fire belching out of the right side of the cowling told everyone on the ground the story, Sherman had a problem..... A BIG one! Notorious for catching fire in the event of catastrophic failure, such as was the case here, the R-2800 can prove to be hard to put out once "lit". From our vantage point it looked like this pilot was in for a very wild ride indeed. The Yak was smoking, belching fire and going down.....Fast!

Sherman tells us of his view......"I did not see the fire, as it appears, everyone else did. What I was aware of was thick smoke in the cockpit and an engine that was trying to shake itself from the mount. I could not see out at all or see any of my instruments. I just pointed the Yak up and tried to zoom for as much altitude as possible. The smoke was thickening so I felt something was real bad somewhere. You normally do not open the canopy in this situation because it acts as a draft and sucks the smoke, fire or whatever through the cockpit. My dilemma was I could not see anything! So I opened the canopy and saw Rwy 14 below me. The smoke was still billowing out so I shut down the engine and secured all switches and fuel valves. I instinctively blew the fire bottle as a precaution. I did not see the flames as it were. Apparently my instinct was correct, as the fire went out. But, by this time I was already headed for the rwy."

What happened to Sherman Smoot on Saturday afternoon during his mayday incident could have happened (and has) to any competitor. Running an engine at it's maximum, in this case above maximum, does have it's risks. BUT they are minimized when professionals do what they have trained to do - this is not a sport that takes kindly to mistakes.

The fact that this incident ended as it did is not only a demonstration of Sherman Smoot's extraordinary piloting skills, but also to the foresight and training that RARA requires of the participants. Loosing all power with an aircraft that glides like a brick caused Sherman to point the nose of the aircraft down and make an extreme descent towards the runway, touching down at an estimated 170 mph.

Smoot explains: "The steep decent was due to the fact that this Yak glides or should I say falls out of the sky. As I'm sure you know, all this took place in less than a few minutes........It's amazing how fast the mind works when challenged like this"

The lack of sufficient runway to stop the aircraft required a maneuver known as a "ground loop" (engaging full rudder defection which will cause the aircraft to spin or "loop" on the ground) in what was a successful attempt to stop the aircraft prior to running over the bluff approximately 100 yards from the end of the runway. Knowing that all this occurred within a period of less than 2 minutes makes one realize the true nature of these men and women that go for the gold, extraordinary individuals one and all. All ended well.... due to a combination of these things and a smile from lady luck. It could have easily ended up with a much different ending. The R-2800 that powered Perestroika (now Czech Mate) had proven in the past that it could go the distance, as well as post lap speeds in the 430+ mph range, but Murphy's Law (whatever can go wrong, will go wrong) intervened this time.

What follows is a pictorial representation of the aftermath. Not a pretty sight for those that love warbirds - but the old phrase "any landing that you can walk away from *is* a good one" comes to mind. The area after the accident was cordoned off and only a few members of the press were allowed access. We know that many are keenly interested in what damage was sustained by the airframe and what occurred out there - and this is the soul reason why these pictures are being presented. That said.........

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Photo 1

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Photo 2

Photos 1 and 2 was what greeted me when I arrived at the scene. Strangely quiet, all were busy with the task at hand.

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Photo 3

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Photo 4

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Photo 5

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Photo 6

Photos 3 thru 6 show the airframe being lifted up by the crane and the trailer being backed into position so that the aircraft could be carted to the hanger for post accident inspection.

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Photo 7

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Photo 8

Photos 7 and 8 reveals some of the damage to the airframe. In photo 7 close inspection shows a buckling in the fuselage section behind the wing root, with one panel section appearing to have come loose from the frame. You can also see that the tail gear was skewed to the right, that the right main gear collapsed outward (what is not shown is that the left main collapsed inwardly) and that the scorching of the airframe shows that most of the engine fire escaped out of the right hand exhaust port . Photo 8 shows the damage to the prop, which was obviously stopped at the time the ground loop was initiated.
Both photos reveal that the wings "appear" to be undamaged. However, close inspection of Photo 8 shows that the upper skin of the left wing panel was buckled, and that the outer 4 feet of the wing appears slightly upturned.

We certainly are glad that all ended up well for Sherman Smoot, walking away from this accident with just a few aches and pains and some rattled nerves. The entire extent of the damage to the aircraft is unknown at this time but does appear repairable. Hopefully we will able to find out the plans for Czech Mate's eventual repair and future. AAFO.COM will update this article as these facts become known.

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Story By: Wayne Sagar and Mark Kallio
Photography by: Mark Kallio


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