By the time you read this, the modified P-51D racer, Voodoo, should be safely at home in its hangar less than one month after giving air race pilot, Bob "Buckwheat" Hannah, the ride of his life. During Saturday's Unlimited gold heat race at Reno, while rounding pylon 4 during the pace lap, Voodoo was seen to violently pitch up and pull out of the race. The violent maneuver, which pegged the g-meter at over 10 g's, momentarily blacked Hannah out and broke the left elevator.
According to Voodoo's owner, trucking guru Bob Button, the racer was not damaged nearly as badly as was thought by many. "All that bondo stretches pretty well", he laughed. "It flexed the wing pretty good, but it didn't overstress it."
With a replacement set of elevators on loan from Chino's, Square One Aviation, as well as a ferry engine in place, Button plans to fly the airplane home from Reno this weekend. "I want it to be a nice, relaxing flight.....considering how we USUALLY fly it". Once in the hangar, Voodoo will get a full annual inspection. "Dan Martin is going to come up from Hollister to give it a thorough look over", Button stated.
Voodoo came to Reno last month fresh from severe modifications at Tiger Destefani's restoration shop in Shafter, CA. Even though the paint was essentially still wet, "Buckwheat" promptly set top qualifying speed at over 452 mph. But the airplane was far from perfect, and had many precautionary emergency landings during the week. The time crunch to make Reno precluded a full flight test regiment of all the mods.... something which Button himself takes full responsibility for.
Weighing in at just a shade over 7200 lbs, the Voodoo sported several new modifications for 1998, including large wing fillets, a slick composite engine cowling, and a VERY smooth wing and fuselage. These mods resulted, however, in an aft c.g. condition which was most prominent at racing speeds. "With all the power that Buckwheat was carrying it kept wanting to pitch the nose up", Button explained. "It was something we were fighting all week. He kept putting more and more nose down trim into it until finally it [the elevator trim tab] got so far out into the airstream that it started to flutter. Once it went, it broke the elevator link and caused the pitch up."
"Normally, we keep the elevators very stiff [to help with control forces at racing speeds], but when we got the plane back on the ground, you could move the thing with your hand. Once we got to looking at the control cables and mechanism inside we saw why. The force of the incident sheered the bolts on the elevators phelonic block clean off!" During the upcoming annual inspection the team plans on milling a new block out of aluminum,as well as changing the angle of incidence on the horizontal stabilizer to make the racer more stable at high speeds. "That should keep it from wanting to pitch up so bad".
"After the race on Saturday we got to looking at it and realized that it wasn't hurt as bad as we first thought. We COULD have raced it on Sunday if we had an extra set of elevators, but [crew chief] David Hughes decided to err on the side of safety, so we sat it out. And that's the way we always want to play it. Safety first. Buckwheat was ready to race, and I know he wanted to, but there was no reason to take any more chances than we'd already taken", Button said.
During Sunday's races, a "FOR SALE" sign was seen hanging off of Voodoo's prop. When asked about this, Bob stated that this is the truth. "The ad comes out in 'Trade-a-Plane' next week. We'll run it for a month. I was going to put "NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART" in the ad, but I thought it might scare people away", he laughed. "We will only sell the racer if we get a serious offer from someone who intends to keep racing the plane...... we're not just gonna give this thing away."
If Voodoo does not sell, Button, Buckwheat, and the rest of the team fully intends to continue racing her. Bob changed the name of the racer from Voodoo Chile to just Voodoo for 1998. Too many people were pronouncing the name "chile" (as in the food) instead of "child" (with a silent "d"). "Not enough Jimi Hendrix fans out there to really appreciate the humor of the name. We figured that if we were going to be serious racers we needed to have a serious name." After the inspection, the racer will get a paint job wild enough to match the name: purple and yellow, with a black & white checkerboard stripe, as well as red and green trim. "It's gonna look great when it's done."
"We're all done with making any more modifications to the plane", Button continued. "We plan on putting it through a full flight test program this year, and start concentrating on just finishing! Last year ['97] we had moved up from 5th to 3rd and were pushing hard when we lost the spray bar pump and burned a piston. We went from the failure of a $350 part last year, to the failure of a $250 part this year..... so at least we're working in the right direction. It's costing me less and less money each year!"
Story and Photography by: LT. Bradley J. Haskin
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