Thursday, April 2, 2009

Pylon Racing Seminar AKA Rookie School

Reno, NV June 2003

The first time I went to the Reno Air Races, it was 1999 and I was a student pilot at Diamond Aviation at KSQL. We were two students and a CFI in a rented C172 - actually, my only time in a C172 - and I landed at KRNO. I remember landing next to a DC-9 on the parallel runway and thinking - we don't have this at KSQL! We landed and caught a shuttle to 4SD, Reno-Stead Airport to watch the races.

Karen Morss owned Diamond at the time and her husband, David Morss was racing in three classes; Unlimited, Sport and Formula. Karen made sure we were set up with tickets and Pit Passes. We really got to see the races up close because of Karen and David and their hospitality.

From that first day, I was hooked and have always wanted to be a Race Pilot.

Forward fast to 3 ½ years later. I recently purchased my beloved Pitts, Ruby and I have secured the paperwork, FAA approvals, and insurance necessary to attend. I'm headed to ROOKIE SCHOOL!

Rookie School, or as Reno Air Race Association (RARA) likes to call it "Pylon Racing Seminar" (PRS) is a new phenomenon. This was the sixth year RARA has held the PRS. Prior to the Seminar, Rookies would arrive a few days early and be tested on the course right before the start of race week. Because there is so much to cover, they decided to handle this in June instead of moments before the races begin.

I arrived on Wednesday. The winds were SCREAMING out of the South; which is always a delight at Stead considering the runways are 08/26. There is also the 14/32, which has potholes the size of antelope, and the closed 18-36, which has giant X markings just to prove it really is closed. So, the makeshift tower says, 23 at 15; but the windsock says 180 at 15G20.

Confucius say: Sometimes Tower fibs, windsock always tell truth.

I worked and worked and worked and finally, my first Pitts landing at Stead was not nearly as horrifying as it could have been. I actually had two pilots click in to tell me that was a fine landing and I really had to work for it. This came from two of the Instructors for other classes, so I believed them.

The next day, Thursday, was our day for Ground School. This started with The History of RARA, the Introductions of the Board, yadda yadda yadda. Then, the fun stuff. Topics included: This is how it works; this is what you will be doing. This is the true story, the behind the scenes information, the real deal. Are you ready for this?

After the Ground School, RARA held a cocktail party. And for the first time, I realized that I wasn't the only one that was nervous. All of these guys were nervous. We were all Rookies (except the one guy who was "held back" last year and was repeating the course). We were all there for the first time, flying Pylons and hoping to make the cut.

That night, I slept two hours. I flew the Pylons in my sleep. I tossed and turned and completed freaked out. Anxiety is a wonderful thing.

Friday morning briefing is at the crack of dawn, of course. Is anything started in aviation after 9am? We have 8 rookies, 7 with airplanes. The first order of the day is to get the "Airwork" out of the way. We break up into two groups. Each Biplane Racer needs to show proficiency in their airplane. Take off with less than a ten foot derivation of track, rolls left and right with little to no discernible loss in altitude, 4G pull, dive to 110% of cruise speed, etc. Two instructors in the air and two additional instructors on the ground evaluated us throughout these maneuvers. This was done at a reasonable altitude that would make the FAA happy.

Then, down we went. Down to the Pylons and the racecourse below.

The Pylons are actually telephone poles about 50 feet tall, with specially made striped drums at the top. The Biplanes' Pylons are bright orange/red panels to increase their visibility to pilots. The course is a modified oval and equals 3.11-mile course. Because of the plethora of Pylons, RARA was kind enough to put lights on two of our Pylons. Of course, on Friday, they lit the wrong ones. Oh well, that's the way it goes.

The first time around the Pylons we were still working on our "Airwork". We were instructed by our leader to locate the Pylons and then locate the nearest landing option in case of a Mayday. We were continuously briefed on where to land in case of problems and how to declare a Mayday if you are NORDO or if you have radio access. They repeated that Maydays are free at Reno. If you have a hint of a problem, say the word and the world is your oyster. Safety was paramount throughout the weekend.

Saturday we were given more latitude to fly the Pylons and get a feel for what we were signing up to do. I had one of the timers put me on the clock and I increased my speed nearly 30mph from my first time around the Pylons (when I was still saying, Oh Sh*t) to the final lap when the made me come in and land. Each lap you try something new. Each lap you learn something new. I believe that's why they have Rookie School.

My last landing on Saturday, I'm down and happy and I turn my head and notice there are probably a thousand people there. People came out of the woodwork to watch Rookie School. Apparently, this is the locals opportunity to watch cool airplanes fly the course for free!

On Sunday, we had a simulated race. This started with the simulated Horse Race Start which the Biplanes employ. This puts three biplanes in the first row, two in the second and three in the last row. Each row has their own starter and the starter's job is to successfully launch the next row once the previous group is tails up.

We practiced passing. They estimate that you need 8mph over your prey to pass successfully. So, we practiced passing or should I say we tried to pass. We got lower, got faster and clearly had more fun then anyone thought we would.

At the end of the Seminar, we were told if we passed or not. I passed - or I wouldn't be writing this and you never would have heard that I even attended! When I found out I passed, I had the feeling of going to Fantasy Baseball Camp with all of the idols of your youth. Mine were Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, etc. And at the end of the week long camp they turned to me and said, "Hey, Dash! Why don't you come up and play at Yankee Stadium with us! You made the Team!"

To be part of the rich tradition that is the National Championship Air Races is an honor I will not soon forget. I hope to see all of you in September! I would love to have Chapter 38 there in force. By the way, I need a Pit Crew - so volunteers are being solicited!

Thank you,

Marilyn Dash
Ruby Red Racing

The Centennial


By Marilyn Dash
Originally written: December 2003

On December 17, 2003 we will celebrate the Centennial of Powered Flight. Let's think about this for a moment. In 100 years we have gone from the seaside dunes of Kitty Hawk, NC and the 12 seconds that changed the world -- to the International Space Station hovering somewhere in space. We've landed on the moon, we've made the world a smaller place by providing the opportunity for travel, and more importantly, I learned how to fly. You can see a picture of me in my plane in on this website.

Forward fast 95 years

As a self-employed management consultant, there are times when business is slow. During one of these times, I made the awesome first step of my flying career. While volunteering at the newly opened Hiller Aviation Museum at my local airport (at, Mr. Stanley Hiller (of Hiller Helicopter fame) looked me in the eye and asked me, "Why aren't you a pilot?" and I responded with a phrase that many of you have probably used 100s of times, "I'll do it Some Day!" He then said, "Today is Some Day!" I left that night and the next day, signed up for my first lesson.


Learning something new is never easy. This is especially true when you aren't a spring chicken anymore and you need to work full time to pay for the learning. Additional things hampered learning -- such as weather, mechanics, scheduling, personality conflicts and the continuous need for additional money.

It didn't take long for me to realize my passion. I was hooked from the beginning. I couldn't get enough of the physical, emotional and psychological challenges that flying presented to me. However, there were times when I became discouraged. In the 10 months it took me to earn my private pilot license, I went through four instructors and three different types of airplane. With each change, came disillusionment, delay and a whole new set of issues. Not unlike life in general -- don't you think?

So, I endured and I earned that precious license and said to myself, "Now what?" Twenty-four hours after receiving a passing grade on my exams (written, oral and practical), I purchased my first airplane. Not only was the ink not dry on my certificate, the FAA probably hadn't heard the good news yet. I was psyched! I had purchased a used Piper Cherokee that was nearly as old as I was.


Her name is Daisy and the two of us went everywhere together. She continued to teach me about this new world of flying. We flew from the San Francisco Bay Area to as far north as Seattle, WA and as far east as Midland, TX and the Commemorative Air Museum (at I had planned a cross-country trip to return to my childhood home in NJ; however 120 mph over 6,000 miles of terrain sounded less and less like a good use of my non-working hours. I would love to do this trip...maybe in a faster airplane.

Next Steps

As any overachiever knows, once a goal is set and achieved, a new goal must be created. So, what would be my next goal? How about Aerobatics, you know -- Daredevil Stunt Flying? That should continue to inspire me, don't you think!?

The first loop for me was in a 1929 TRAVELAIR 4000. For those of you unfamiliar, that's an open cockpit biplane built before all of us were born. As soon as I got over the fear of falling out of the plane -- I really started to enjoy myself -- maybe too much.

Again, we forward fast about one year to my first Aerobatic Contest. I came in Second in the "Basic" category for newbies, people like me. I was addicted to the energy, the mixture of control and gravity, the fear and the exhilaration. And I really enjoyed winning a trophy.

By now, if you know me, you probably know that my next step was to purchase my Aerobatic plane. I bought a tiny Pitts Special single seat biplane. Her name is Ruby and she and I are learning how to fly all over again; this time, upside down.

Learning how to fly is nothing compared to learning how to fly Aerobatic Maneuvers and then Sequences of Maneuvers together. While learning this, I also started learning formation flying and ACM (dog fighting) techniques. I was constantly searching out difficult experiences to expand my knowledge and to test my mettle.

The process continues

The most recent test for me was to attend Pylon Racing School in preparation for the National Air Racing Championships in Reno every September (at If you haven't heard, we race airplanes 50 feet off the desert floor at top speeds. There are six different classes of airplanes, including biplanes and jets, and the only words that come to mind are "hard core." This is mettle testing time.

So, why am I telling you this story? See, flying changed my life. I was a pretty good consultant and a decent human being BF (before flying) -- however, I have changed enormously. I learned how to focus. I learned determination and diligence. I learned the meaning of Courage, with a capital C. I learned how to overcome fear, to rely on my wits and my skills to work through a dreadful situation (I've had a few). I learned respect -- for machines, people, and talent. I learned the meaning of the word "Honor" and I've met people worthy of that word. I've learned the importance of punctuality.
And I know that showing up isn't really half the battle. It's all about what you do after you show up, you know the results.

Most importantly, I learned that to live in the moment is the only way to live. Yesterday is filled with regrets and Tomorrow is filled with plans, but today is what I have to work with and that's what I'll do.

No one is an island.

While the Wright Brothers were an amazing duo, they were assisted by many through the ages. From the drawings of da Vinci in the 15th Century, to Otto Lilienthal and his gliding flights in the 1890s, to the multitudes who followed them, the Wrights brought it all together and made it work. I have many people to thank for inspiring me, and I never postpone thanking them.


I am including a few amusing anecdotes about being "the girl." I remember how hard I thought life was for me when I started in High Tech years ago. How many times did I hear "It's a man's world!" Well, you ain't seen nothing yet!

I remember flying Daisy to Las Vegas for "Girls' Weekend!" On our way there, someone in another plane actually said on the radio, after hearing my voice, "Oh no, another empty kitchen!" I loved it! Yep, somewhere in the world is yet another suburban kitchen devoid of the smell of chocolate chip cookies -- the horror.

We were still giggling when we landed and the fuel truck pulled up alongside ready to help us add fuel. My friend and I were gathering our suitcases out of the back and the fuel truck driver turned to us and said, "Where's the pilot?!" Actually, we were both pilots, just not boy pilots. I still chuckle when I think of his face when he saw these women exiting an airplane and he kept searching for the boy -- you know, the pilot.

Another good story, this one is about me and Ruby. Ruby is a single seat airplane. Many times when I fly, I wear a typical military style Nomex flight suit. I was standing next to Ruby wearing a flight suit and someone asked me, "Is this yours?" Yes. "Do you fly?" Yes. "By yourself?" Huh? Do I fly by myself? Is that what you said? I told the guy, "No, actually there is a nine year old boy on the ground with a Radio Control device that is actually doing the flying, I just sit in the plane and look cute, expletive, expletive!"

From that day on, I realized that the most frequently asked question I hear is, "Do you fly by yourself?" Yes, by myself. I did it -- by myself with the help of Wilbur and Orville and everyone that went before me and inspired me.

Happy Anniversary to all of us!
Formula One Air Racing – New Players

When most people hear about the Reno Air Races, they think of the Big Iron – the Unlimited Division, Strega, Rare Bear, and Dago Red. Not many of the fans wake up at the crack of dawn to watch the Formula 1 Racers, or my beloved Biplane Class. These two groups put up some of the most exciting racing you’ll find, and they do it on a budget.

This month, we are going to look at some of the new blood in Formula 1. In the last few years, we have seen an amazing amount of talent come into the sport in the morning classes. And I, for one, believe they deserve more of our attention and support. Especially since I’m one of them, and I believe in the entertainment value of these groups. Seriously, where are you going to see an eight airplane formation take-off? Heck, that almost scares me, and I’m fearless.

Meet Elliot

One of the new players is a young man with an amazing pedigree. Elliot Seguin was one of those airport kids. You know the ones, they have a ton of energy and all they want to do is learn and help and fly and learn and help. And he’s SMART – not like “doesn’t fall down or hit himself in the head” smart… I mean REALLY SMART. But, you’ll see that in a few minutes, keep reading.

He grew up in the Midwest, Michigan to be exact. People from California don’t realize how different aviation is in other areas of our country, and around the world. In California, antiques like the Stearman, Waco or Ryan and military fighters like the P-51s or trainers like the T-6 are plentiful. Highly modified speedsters, like the Legacy or Glasair are everywhere. At my airport, we have several antiques, fighters, racers, speedsters and aerobatic aircraft. When visitors come from other parts of the country or the world, they pull up a lawn chair and watch the activities all day – and we practically laugh at them. It’s all in what you get used to and we, in California, are spoiled. Big time.

The other day, I left the office early and headed to the airport. Seriously, where else would I go? I watched the B-17 Liberty Belle come in to land and then, watched the run-up for a newly restored Yakolev-3 with an Allison motor, a few minutes later an Extra 300L landed behind a Sukhoi 26 and a Glasair II took off for a flight. This would be a good month in Michigan. Where I live, it’s called “Tuesday”.

So, back to Elliott… his dad was a pilot. In fact, his dad was “that guy” at the airport who kept improving his airplane .. because he could. He owned a Globe Swift. But when Elliott was in middle school, he put a Continental 210 on her. She was the Hot Rod of the Airport and probably started Elliot’s love for noise and speed and experimentation. He would watch his dad fly this amazing example of a Swift – at mid-field he’d be at pattern altitude. That was impressive. Elliot loved it. And he never forgot it either.

Dad went to Reno several times, but because of the school schedule – Elliot wasn’t able to join him. He heard the stories. It became his dream, his Mecca, if you will. Dad brought home Reno Paraphernalia, a coffee table book, a box of pictures and a vinyl record album of Reno Sounds.

These things drew Elliot’s attention like a moth to a flame. He would listen to that album until it was nearly groveless. He would look at the pictures and dream of being there. But, the final straw is when he met Lyle Shelton with his Rare Bear at Oshkosh one year. He was sold. He still has the t-shirt which Lyle signed for him.

Meeting Lyle, standing toe to toe with this legend, shaped this young man’s life. From that moment, he focused on earning his Pilot Certification and going to Reno to race a Bearcat. He couldn’t imagine anything better than that.

However, that road was long. He worked full time as a laborer through high school to earn enough money to buy a Cessna 150. He wanted to spend every minute at the Airport working on his plane, flying or earning enough money for avgas.

He then met a man named Davey, who restored old Fords, but his passion was the Stearman and T-6 projects he was working on in the evenings. He had a machine shop and all the tools a young Elliot would need to get into trouble. Davey hired our aspiring racer making him a deal. If you work on the car stuff and do a good job, I’ll teach you about the airplane stuff.

His first project was to get the cranks out of three old 1340’s which Davey had purchased off a cropduster somewhere in Indiana. Elliot was covered in old oil, pesticides and bugs working on those motors, but he was dirty and happy.

Later he worked on several W-670s for customers’ Stearman. At a small fly-in somewhere in the Midwest, Davey pointed at a Stearman taxiing by and says, “That’s your motor right there”? An overcoming feeling of pride took over him, as he watched his handiwork take to the sky.

All of this working and flying framed his life. He wanted to go fast, and whatever he flew would have a round motor and a tailwheel – like the Rare Bear. He told me that he couldn’t figure out why anyone would fly anything else. And he was never into those composites, but he should have been paying more attention.

He earned a Mechanical Engineering degree and is now a Design Engineer for Scaled Composites down in Mojave. From thinking the only cool airplane to race was a Bearcat, to working in composites for Burt Rutan was a long way to come. But he is around some of the most brilliant minds in Aviation.

Enter Jon and Patricia Sharp. Since he is already in Mojave, and already working in composites and engineering, doesn’t it make sense to walk a few hangar rows over and introduce yourself to the Sharps? He was hired. Joining the Nemesis Crew was his first real exposure to the Races.

In 2007, he was able to share his dream with his dad in a big way. Tiger had some composite problems with Strega and Elliot was able to get his dad inside the Strega Pit to help work on the beautiful Unlimited Racer. Dad got to meet Tiger, LD and Stevo and was able to see the sport “from the other side of the ropes”.

It was obvious to Elliot that the most economical and intelligent way for him to enter the races is through the Formula 1 Class. He liked the heritage of the class, thinking back to the names of Wittman and Cassutt. It was clear to Elliot after spending so much time with Jon Sharp, that this was the place to make his debut as Jon did many years ago.

He found his Cassutt Project in 2007 and started to turn her around. With the help of many people at the Mojave Airport, he was able to finish the aircraft in February of 2008 and by the time June rolled around; he had over 50 hours of flight time in her.

In June 2008, Elliot attended PRS, or Rookie School. This is the Seminar held each year to train and evaluate the new racers. He was a fresh young face and a “racer’s favorite.

The first time I met Elliot, he had just arrived at the Races in 2008. I was sitting in the Biplane/F1 hangar with some of the other racers and when they saw him pull into the pit area, most of them got up to say hello.

He is a genuinely likeable young man with a lot of passion for the sport and a good head on his shoulders. I expect to see him improve each year and probably move into another race class in the future. Will he fly a Bearcat in the Unlimited Division, or will he stay in composites? Only time will tell.

Reno is Marketing

A completely different story comes to us from Texas. John Hall was always interested in flying. He enlisted in the USAF when he was 17 years old and became an aircraft mechanic. He started his flying lessons shortly thereafter via the USAF Flying Club. He earned his CFI/II and MEI and a Bachelors in Aeronautical Sciences from Embry Riddle.

His first experience going to Reno was in the Mid 90’s while running the CJ/Bravo Division for Cessna Citation. He brought the CitationJet for display. This was before many exhibitors were at Reno and now, the Pits are filled with the latest and greatest.

John joined an organization called Premier Jet Aviation. He thought a great way to get publicity for the organization was to go to Reno, NOT as an exhibitor again, but as a racer.

Race 99 was originally raced by Dave Morss as Cool Runnings and before that Sahara. She has a long heritage making her first race appearance back in 1980. John also purchased Race 98 as a practice airplane – but ended up entering both in 2007 and 2008.

The plan, currently, for 2009 is to just race one. Fielding two aircraft each year was taxing and doesn’t really benefit them from the Marketing standpoint.

John is one of those people who are always ready to lend a hand. I remember several times where he was able to fly his other plane, his RV-8 to give a competitor a hand. Steve Senegal from the Endeavor team forgot his tow-bar last year during PRS. John packed him into the RV and flew him back to Hayward, CA to pick it up.

He is also a big fan of the Formula 1 class. He agrees with Elliot about its Historic Value and considers it one of the most competitive classes. It is the only class built specifically for racing. The aircraft are all required to meet strict technical requirements and the pilot and crew can make only certain modifications.

The Rules – from the IF1 website
The rules are simple; all racers must be powered by a 200 cubic inch Continental engine (the same 100 hp engine used in a Cessna 150 trainer). The weights and size of every major part must be within stock limits. The cam profile and carburetion are strictly controlled. The racers must have at least 66 square feet of wing, weigh at least 500 pounds empty, have fixed landing gear and a fixed pitch propeller.
These rules were designed to provide a fast and economical racing class. They have succeeded well on both counts. International Formula 1 Air Racing is one of the fastest sports in the world. These racers routinely post lap speeds around a 3 mile oval in excess of 240 mph, and have been clocked on the straight-aways at well over 260 mph, all while flying approximately 50’' off the ground.
The races start from the ground, with the entire field of 8 airplanes taking off right in front of the crowd, and racing for the lead at the first turn. The races are generally 8 laps of a 3 mile oval course. Top planes post lap times of about 45 seconds. The class is highly competitive, with the difference between first and third often less than 1 mph.


Now, doesn’t that make you want to wake up early a few times during race week and see what all the fuss is about?

I’ll see you there.

Fly Low, Fly Fast, Turn Left,

Marilyn Dash
Ruby Red Racing


John Hall with his racer, Cool Runnings, Race99
Photocredit = Curtis Fowles

John Hall with his Practice Plane
Photocredit = Curtis Fowles


Photocredt = Tim Adams

Tight Racing

Photocredit – Curtis Fowles

Even tighter

Photocredit – Tim Adams

Elliot and Wasabi ready to roll

Photocredit - John Hall


Photocredit – John Hall