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People Who RaceBill Rogers

Bill Rogers envisioned an airplane that would not only be beautiful but breathtakingly fast as well..... This year The National Championship Air Races at Reno, Nevada saw this dream become reality when "Miss Ashley II", with Rogers' partner and race pilot Gary Levitz at the controls, found her way around the pylons of the high desert race course. The aircraft is a hybrid combination of old and new technology skillfully combined to capture the best of both worlds. All Aviation FlightLine OnLine reported the aircraft as a "Learstang" when we first saw photos of it last June, not the official designation of this new type but certainly a descriptive name. Registered as a "North American/Rogers P-51R", the airplane is a scratch built "Mustang" fuselage mated to a Learjet wing and tail. A Rolls Royce "Griffon" V-12 engine bolted to the firewall provides the power for this "Reno Racer".
What does it take to bring such a dream to reality? We recently spoke with designer/builder Bill Rogers to better understand what goes into a project like this.

When we talked to you at Reno you mentioned a "joint custody" of "Miss Ashley II" with your partner Gary Levitz, Where is the aircraft now?

"It's in Gary's hanger at Salt Lake, we're going to leave it there till around January, 1 and then bring it back up here and start working on it again."

That's got to be like sending a kid off to school.....

"Yea it is, except I've been working on this kid for at least 40 hrs. a week for about 5 years, just not to have it around is kind of nice actually.......I miss it every now and then, by January it will be time to start working on it again."

There are critics of the use of classic aircraft for unlimited air racing.....other attempts at creating a race plane from the ground up have not been successful, you've gone at it with a slightly different approach, keeping some of the old "science" as well as bringing in some of the new......

"I don't think you can throw away the 40 years of propeller engineering, start from scratch and expect to be as fast as they are, you have to use what has been learned before. The Mustang fuselage is sleek, extremely strong and easy to build, and it looks good. I didn't want to use anything that was rare, I didn't want to cut anything up that a historian would ever frown on and I think we achieved it. The only real Mustang parts we used were a stick, a throttle, and a tailwheel assembly...... everybody that owns a Mustang has several tailwheel assemblies in the back of their hanger..... we really seriously wanted to build the airplane so that we didn't cut up anything that was historically valuable."

Miss Ashley II entered Reno with very little time on the tach, considering how new the airplane was you did quite well, many of us are holding our breath in anticipation of seeing just how fast this combination will be.

"It will be interesting to see. I guess it's kind of like going to school, your final exam starts when you fly it, then you start doing the fine tuning to see how fast it goes, that tells you what kind of success you are. I hope it'll be a winner, I really do...it's always been a dream...... I wanted an airplane that was fast, I wanted an airplane that was *REALLY* pretty with beautiful lines, and I wanted it to be one that people would build model airplanes of. To me that would be a real tribute, if people were building model airplanes of it, that lets you know there are people out there that really like it."

It is a beautiful airplane... if the crowds at Reno were any indicator, I think it's going to be very popular.......Your speeds improved rapidly throughout the events, from a fairly conservative start in the first heat race Thursday to the very respectable 4th place finish on Sunday. Some of the lap speeds were quite fast, but the engine never sounded like it was working hard at all to us.

"We never really did work the motor hard. We pretty much ran it by the Griffon Manual which allows you to run it at 3000 RPM and 85 inches of boost, and that's a normal overspeed on the engine, There's really no maintenance to be done other than...according to the English manual... the pilot is supposed to make an entry to the logbook that he overboosetd the engine. That's basically what we wanted to do, run it at that power setting because that power setting is still on the chart in the manual. We knew exactly how much horsepower we were making, it wasn't take the lines off the chart, move this line here and that one there and make a guess."

Looking at some of the power settings the Merlin is run at makes us wonder what you might finally come up to as you begin to "tweek" it.

"Well the unfortunate thing, the Merlin has been tweaked with and plotted with for 20 years and there's a lot of history behind them, there's not much of that with the Griffon"

The old saying about no substitute for cubic inches comes to mind though......seems a pretty good base to work from....

"That was kind of my intention...I wanted an engine that's not rare, there's still quite a number of them over in England. And I fell in love with the contra-rotating prop when I first saw the Red Baron my thought was ...I gotta have one of them!"

I remember that plane well, it sounded absolutely amazing!

"It's a beautiful sounding engine....sounds like a Merlin on steroids."

How much bigger than the Merlin is the Griffon?

"I think it's 2230 cubic inches and the Merlin is 1650.... so somewhere around 600 cubic inches."

We talked to one of your crew at Reno, he told us you never even got into the second stage of the two stage blower on Miss Ashley II's Griffon...

"Before we came to Reno we'd never had the engine over 60 inches. We ran it at 3050 rpm and 80 inches of boost there, still in low blower, the difference between a Merlin and a Griffon, a Merlin in high blower at low altitude, like Reno, all it does is make heat, it doesn't make any more boost at all and that's why nobody uses it, but a Griffon's boost is geared different in the blowers. At Reno altitude, in high blower, I think we could run at 90-95 inches of manifold pressure, which would have given us about 300 more horsepower.."

To run the Griffon at these higher settings, have you had to install any modifications like the alcohol injection or radiator spray bars the Merlin powered racers use ?

"The Griffon comes from the factory with a fuel injection unit, we removed all the English injection parts, that's all updraft. We put a downdraft PR-58, which is an R-2800 carburetor on it, it was just a bone stock R-2800 carb that we overhauled we adapted it to the engine. We put an alcohol injection unit in it, in fact we wound up just running pure water in it....The ADI, which calls for 50-50 alcohol/water, was getting the induction temperature too cold, so we ended up just running straight water in it."

We heard of at least one racer that had a bit of a problem in that area, Vlado Lenoch, flying "MoonBeam McSwine", called a mayday and deadsticked due to rough running, turned out the injection was just getting it too cold and put out the fire.

"You get em too cold and they will backfire! One of our problems early in the week, we had an ADI system on the aircraft that was an automatic system but it was just putting too much water in the engine, so we plumbed around it and changed it to a manual system so Gary could just dial in the amount he wanted...."

Sounds like a good idea seems like you'd have to watch it really close though.

"That's the whole thing.... you've got to watch it, because you can cook an engine pretty quick like that."

How common is the manual system? "Voodoo Chile" had the burnt piston in Saturday's race... <wondering> if that might have been the problem?

"Probably not....most people don't run a manual control."

Some of the power settings at Reno are nothing short of amazing...we've heard Bill Destefani ran Strega at 150 inches and there was more in the bank had anyone been able "come up and play".

"I was talking to Skip Holm......Skip's got a unique way of looking at things... he doesn't look at things quite the same as the engineers do ...which is refreshing actually.... we were looking at the speeds this year, everybody's speeds were off thirty miles an hour including our predicted speed...we were off about 30 miles an hour. I'd go talk to Tiger, and I'd talk to Lyle...talk to everybody... for some reason the airplanes just weren't going as fast.... the airplanes were the same, the pilots were the same, we were all using the same fuel.... I'd thought that might be the problem, maybe the batch of fuel was not as good as last year... that was the only common denominator...that and the weather. Then I talked to Skip and asked what he thought it was... He said......" no I think it's the airplanes... when one airplane doesn't go as fast as it normally does the other ones see that they don't have to go as fast either..so nobody goes as fast......"

<laughing> That's a good way to look at it! .......What was your best lap this year?

"I believe our best lap was about 430 MPH....."

It was pointed out to us that the exhaust streak down the fuselage on Miss Ashley II was lacking much indication of any turbulence breakup, flowing smoothly straight down the sides. In looking at the aircraft the cross section looks just a bit different, to our eye, just a little flatter on the sides than a stock Mustang....how close is it in cross section to an original?

"We're actually real close to a stock Mustang....If you were to take the fuselage from top longeron to bottom longeron, from firewall to tailcone, it's stock Mustang..."

It's so smooth, I guess that's the trick to the eye.....

"The cowling, I think, makes a big difference. If you remember even looking back at Stiletto, and that was a beautiful airplane but the cowling looked all lumpy, partly due to the Zeus fasteners and it was a 40 year old cowling. Our cowling was a new manufactured cowling. I called a company in England "Airframes Unlimited", they advertise in "Warbirds Worldwide". I asked them can you make a Mark-24 Spitfire cowling that fits a P-51...they thought I was crazy.....the guy kind of laughed....."dunno...nobody's ever ordered one before" So I said I tell you what...I'll make the drawings, send you the drawings, and you make the cowling."

It sure worked, that cowl looks great!

"...... And our spinner is 5 inches larger in diameter than a Griffon/Spitfire spinner so he had to make the front 5 inches larger, he had to make the back completely different because the Mustang is a completely different shape than a Spitfire."

As we talk I'm looking at a picture taken out at Reno pylon 8 by our photographer, Mark Kallio, ...........what an airplane!

"It's a pretty airplane isn't it....I built a model of the airplane in '91... "

So this aircraft has been on your mind for a long time then..how was this design born.....

"I drew up a bunch of drawings using a Jet Commander wing. I was going to cut 8 1/2 feet out of the center of the wing then make a bunch of basically "bathtub" fittings so that I could bolt the two outboard wings together. That would give you 209 sq feet, about the same as a Mustang, then mate it to a scratch built Mustang fuselage. I started talking to John Dilley at Reno, this was after he'd crashed "Vendetta", he told me "no use this [Lear] wing...it's a better wing". It took him about six months to convince me to use that wing, but the more I got to looking at it, and the more I got to playing with the numbers, I decided it probably was a better wing...... I went to Reno '91....Dilley told me this was the last chance to get the Vendetta parts, he was going to part it out. So I went up there in October of '91 and bought the airplane......... Everything that was not Mustang, the wing the horizontal stab, the firewall the canopy the landing gear and the oil tank."

What model Lear did Dilley originally get the wing and tail from?

"LearJet model 23, Serial # 18. Wing and horizontal stab, and elevators. The horizontal stab and elevators were shortened 18" on both sides. And the tip tanks were removed from the wing (of course). The landing gear were moved forward because the LearJet has tricycle landing gear. The wing fuselage mounts were moved in 6" on each side to match the mustang fuselage."

The landing gear is a story in itself ......

"It's a "smorgasbord" of a landing gear and it's all John Dilley designed... The good news about that landing gear is John designed it! .....He said to duplicate it all you have to do is take ten airplanes, then go to a machine shop with thirty five thousand dollars and they could all talk to each other.....It uses Aerostar uppers, Cheyenne lowers, 421 retract struts, Cessna Caravan wheels, G-1 nose tires.........This is what makes the gear work so well.... Tsunami had stock Aerostar metering system, every time it the aircraft would land it would pogo-stick itself back in the air...Dilley went in and completely revamped the metering system in that landing gear [Aerostar] and he made it more like a Boeing landing gear...In a Boeing landing gear, no matter how hard you squat those things on the ground they wont bounce, they just squish and that's what he did, he completely redid the metering system inside the gear. Then he put a hardened 4130 sleeve inside the gear to stiffen gear up, it's a .090 4130 sleeve inside that gear.......So the gear was off the shelf for me..."

Sounds like it would be a hard part to replace..

"It would be tremendously hard to replace!"

You've spent a lot of time on this project, it went from dream stage to getting the wings and other parts, what was the next step....

"I took the parts that I got from Dilley then I just started doing drawings to see what looked like an airplane to me, what looked like it was going to do the best..I put the "H" model tail on it. Basically the model I built of it in '91 looks exactly like the airplane does now...nothing was changed, the wingtips the fillets the cowling everything is exactly what it looked like when we started."

It's got to feel really good to see this project finished and see this it in the air for the first time...

"I was real happy, but the first flight wasn't the best....I can tell you that!..... By the third or fourth flight everybody was getting comfortable with the airplane."

Early on there was a lot of speculation on this aircraft, we managed to get some pictures of it up at Paine Field back in late June, sent to us by Roger Byarly. We'd heard a lot of different ideas as to what this "strange plane" that had been seen in the Seattle area was... From a reborn Tsunami to a rebuilt Vendetta...

"We never tried to keep it a secret, I just don't talk about it a lot... some people will bore you to death with their baby pictures, I didn't want to do that with this..."

There's a bunch of us that would have to wipe our chins to keep the drool off our chests...no boring information for us here!

"In some respects it was a reborn Vendetta, we used a lot of John Dilley's engineering on it, and as I got into the airplane any time I exceed my ability I have a stability and control engineer guy named Dick Haley I'd call him in and say "boy you better check these numbers" I've got a structural engineer and did the same thing with him."

You came to Reno with what is basically a new design with very few hours on it, despite this you did very well in the overall standings, how much of what we saw at this years races was part of the test program for Miss Ashley?

"We were running real tight on our test program, it's a "homebuilt" and we just barely flew off our [required] hours, Skip Holm flew most of them just prior to Reno, Gary only had about 1 hour in the aircraft before he jumped in and flew it to Reno."

We watched your lap speeds improve rapidly through the week... it was impressive indeed for a brand new airplane!

"Gary is a very good pilot, he really treats the equipment with a lot of care and understanding , and he knows the systems! He knows what makes the airplane do things, he can sit there and logically figure out what is right or wrong in the airplane and then when he lands we get great insight to what we need to do to the airplane, he's a real good team member."

There's obviously a lot of people that work in the background on a project like this.......

" It takes a team to do it , there is no way an individual, or even one or two people, can build and race an airplane like this! We've had a lot of help from a lot of dedicated people....
Hank Puckett, Jill Minnick, Jack Cole, Mike Wilson, Steve Wilson, Tony Smith, Gordon Cole (Engine Mount), Dick Aley (engineer), Brett Wilson (artwork), Dale Stolzer(engineer), Jim Parks (engineer-worker), Bob Rogers (Electrical Engineer - worker- dad), Greg Kerkof, Sheryl Kerkof, Mike Gillikson (parts), Bob Menalski ( engineer- worker). Also Precision Propeller of Bosie did the prop for us...just a great bunch of people!".................... Having a good sponsor really helps as well, we've got a great relationship with Courtaulds Aerospace [pronounced "Core-Tall"], virtually every aircraft that leaves the Boeing plant is painted with their product, they really are a fine organization to work with."

It's great to see a new team in air racing. Those of us that follow air racing become pretty addicted to the sport... seeing your team's colors up there this year was thrilling to say the least! (not to mention, these guys make a REALLY neat T-Shirt!!) I suspect that most auto racing fans would quickly become converts if exposed to this end of the motorsport spectrum.

"If you give everybody either an underdog or a hero, weather it's Lyle Shelton or Tiger or Miss Ashley....whoever...the more people that have an airplane to root for, the more solid fan you are going to have........ To me it's the most exciting racing there is, when you stop and think about it....we qualify at 200 mph faster than an Indy car at only 50 feet above the ground."

How did you first become interested in air racing....?

"A friend and I decided in 1970 that we were going to go to the races. We flew out to Reno, we were too young to rent a car so we tried to walk out from the hotel. We got to about 10 miles from the airport before somebody told us that it's over 12 miles from Reno to Stead [where the races are held] so we gave in and took a taxi the rest of the way.... I've been going ever since."

We managed to get thoroughly confused on the name of the aircraft... we'd originally reported it as "Miss Ashley II"..... we then heard from someone in your organization that the name would be simply Miss Ashley.... this was confirmed, or so we thought, upon your arrival in Reno with the beautifully painted "Learstang", as we'd been calling it, sporting the name Miss Ashley, no "II" in sight..... Our confusion began again when we noted the airplane listed in the program as Miss Ashley II... Indeed later in the week she carried the full name "Miss Ashley II"... Somehow we figure there's a story behind this...

"That was a real tricky scenario, I'll tell you how we planned that, <grinning> we ordered the sign from the signmaker, he flies a Hughes 300 and flew the sign out to the airport and put on "Miss Ashley"... I asked him "where's the II?" ...and he says........ "oops...it's on my desk, don't worry I'll be at Reno and I'll put it on there". We thought he'd be there on Monday so we didn't really worry too much about it, but he didn't show up till Thursday..... So that's the story of the II, but it was always to intended to be "Miss Ashley II" "


Bill Rogers has been involved in aviation and Unlimited Air Racing for many years. With the help of those that shared his dream, his dedication and years of hard work brought it to reality. Bill was recuperating from the flu at the time of this interview, but kindly gave us time to ask these questions. I'd like to thank him for allowing us to share with you the story behind the "Seattle Mystery Ship"......The tale of Bill Rogers and "Miss Ashley II" is just beginning........ stay tuned!

[Thanks to Mark Kallio and Don "Bucky" Dawson
for their help in preparing a rusty old race fan for this interview]
-Wayne Sagar-

{story and photography copyright 1997 All Aviation FlightLine OnLine}




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