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