Friday, January 31, 2014

Operation - Bring Elsa Home

I thought it would be fun to do a column this month about a personal experience. After racing in the Biplane Class for eleven years, I decided to look into purchasing a potential Sport Class Racer. I’ve always said the perfect two airplane family would be an “upside down” airplane and a “go places” airplane. So, Ruby may now be just for “upside down” flying – and we would need something faster, with some luggage space – to “go places”.

I started in the usual way, perusing ads on Barnstormers and Trade-a-Plane, etc. I found a few older Glasairs and RVs, etc. And then through mutual friends, I heard about an RV-6 which I immediately knew was going to be mine.

This is almost exactly the same experience I had when I was looking for Ruby. Searching and searching and then – someone you know, just happen to know someone else, who just happens to have exactly the right airplane for you. Serendipity, I say.

This road led me to Texas. A friend of mine (and future co-pilot) was available to do a pre-buy inspection, which ended in about a two-hour flight. I think he liked it. He sent a dozen or so pictures and gave me a detailed report. I was smitten – but haven’t seen her yet.

Phone calls were made; remuneration and a long distance handshake sealed the deal.

Dasher and Elsa in Blythe

Now, to get her home…

Trying to fly a small aircraft from Texas to California in the middle of winter is not an easy feat. While I only have weekends available and I wanted her home ASAP – we lucked out and had a break in the weather – and during a weekend.

I had asked my friend to accompany me – someone to talk with, share the flying time, discuss flight planning – things like this are always better shared. The friend I chose just happened to be a long time pilot, ATP and an IA. So I knew he could fly and if something broke, he could probably come up with a fix. He also did the pre-buy and knew the previous owner, had a few hours in the plane, etc. Excellent choice, if I must say so myself. ;-)

Flight planning would take us across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and then nearly all of California. Approximately 1800 nautical miles and my time estimates were close to 9 hours of flight time. This was the plan. This was not how it went. Headwinds added a few hours to the trip – but nothing the three of us couldn't handle.

Our launch time was delayed while we ran power to the second GPS. Redundant Redundancy is my middle name. We had charts, we had VORs, and we had 2 GPS units - 1 panel and one portable – and my iPad and my Android – both with navigation software and full charged. We were certainly not going to get lost.


Because of the delay, we only made it to Midland on day one. Luckily, my long time Crew Chief lives in Midland and took us to his favorite BBQ place for dinner. A full on “hole in the wall” – with great food and the type of ambiance you can only find in Texas.

Launching out of Midland on Day 2, we knew we would need an early start and to get some luck to make it to our final destination before sunset.


Our next start was Deming, NM. Their motto -- "Welcome to Deming: Home of Pure Water and Fast Ducks".  A quick fuel stop, stretch our legs and check weather. I spent some time looking for fast ducks – didn’t see any, but did get a chance to sample the water. We also noticed pictures on the wall of planes and pilots we’ve known. It seems Howard Pardue had been to every airport between TX and CA.

Launching out of Deming and continuing our westward adventure, we passed over Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Boneyard. Not as impressive from 8500 feet, but still massive. We continued west and to our first stop in California – Blythe.

Landing at Blythe we noticed a few aircraft in the transient area. One was an Apache with Geronimo tail modification – which my co-pilot remarked may be the exact plane he earned his multi- in many years before. Aviation is a small world – for planes and for people.

One of the other transient aircraft just happened to be flown by a lovely couple who were taking a quick break while waiting for a ride to town. We started talking and they mentioned they have gone to the Air Races with their friend and Biplane Racer, Aaron Burhoe. Aaron purchased their Pitts several years ago and invited them to join him on his crew while he raced it. I’m sad to say I don’t have their names – I gave them my card, but they didn’t give me one… SORRY!

Before leaving Blythe, we noticed Howard Pardue was on the wall at again. We almost felt he was watching over our flight. If so, thanks, Howard!

Final Leg – and Home

The final leg was about to begin… just under 450 nautical and one more landing. This leg was over familiar ground – I’d flown most of these miles before so I was happily looking at recognizable landmarks.

West Coast Ravens - RV Formation Team

We landed just a few minutes before sunset and were happy to push the new girl into her new hangar. Cash Copeland, my previous Crew Chief and an RV-6 owner himself, was there to greet us. A few more airport friends came by to check out the new metal. A quick look around and congratulatory remarks and we were done for the day.

Next Steps

Within 48 hours, I was signed up for the West Coast Ravens. The West Coast Ravens are a group of pilots who fly their RV airplanes in formation at air shows and various other aviation events.

Next up for us will be formation flying clinics and IFR training. It’s time to extend the circle of places I can make within one day of flying to see where I can visit for long weekends.

If the Air Races happen in September, maybe we will be there in the Biplane Class or the Sport Class – options are open at this time. But for now, I’m happily learning new skills and am thrilled with the new member of the Dasher Air Force.

Until next time…

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Future of the Reno Air Races…

*** Since this column was written, Mike Houghton, the President of RARA has been let go. The Board of Directors will be taking over the day to day operations. We plan to continue coverage of the Future of Air Racing. Keep the faith, fans. 

Since the Galloping Ghost crash of 2011, the Air Races have been plagued with financial concerns and rumors about closing the doors.

In the last few months, Mike Houghton, RARA President, has been talking about this year’s event being in jeopardy if $500,000 was not raised by December 15th. Just in the nick of time, we were told the event is back on. This leaves many people wondering about the long term viability – and if this will continue to be a year to year endeavor.


The Insurance has been an issue since the crash in 2011 –the premiums skyrocketed. In 2011, they were paying around $300K; after the crash the cost was $2mil for 2012; in 2013 it was reduced to $1.2mil. A safe and successful race, year after year, will start to chip away at the high cost, but will take time.

The purse is another problem. It’s no secret that the crowds were highly disappointed in the lack of Unlimited Class participation last year – with only 14 racers in attendance and a mere five Unlimited Races over five days. One of the ways to build this class back up to its earlier glory is to have a decent purse to lure them to participate.

But, the reality is, NO ONE makes money in air racing… I can guarantee not one race team walked away with more than they spent. The cost of fielding even a F1 or Biplane contender is 10-100 times your purse. When you receive your winnings in a check, the running joke is, “Just put it on my Starbucks’ Card”.  Yes, that small.

Sponsorships would help – but this would assume people outside of the fans who attend each year –have heard of the Reno Air Races. 50 years of Air Racing in the High Desert of Nevada and every time we tell people we are Air Racers – they ask about Red Bull. Where did we go wrong!? Why don’t more people know about this event? It’s the best kept secret in motorsports – and it’s a pity.

Other difficulties include the uncertainty of the Unlimited Division – now Unlimited and Warbird Racing Class. Some of the Unlimited pilots/owners were unhappy with the change. There were concerns about who was in charge; who was pulling the strings and what it all meant. The new UWRC didn't have rules or certification from the FAA until the racers showed up at Reno in September. Racers lose faith when they are asked to walk into a situation without rules or clear information. There was too much left unsaid.

The course changes are still in contention. Since the Ghost accident, the course has “tightened up“ - increasing the g-loads going around the course. And the ceiling was lowered. One Unlimited Racer likened it to “racing in a donut” with a deadline on one side, pylons on the other, an arbitrary ceiling above and hard ground below.  

None of the issues from last year have been addressed, yet racers are being asked to “have faith”. Should we be spending our time preparing our air racers? Should we be putting in for vacation during that sacred second week in September? Is this the last year, or was 2013?

Is the constant “fundraising” message form RARA a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, or are things really as bad as they say. For those of us who have been around for many years, we've heard the cries of financial difficulties even before the Ghost crash. Each year our first Pilot Brief of the week started with, “We lost X# of $s last year”. Every year … EVERY YEAR!?

RARA is a non-profit organization – which means any income needs to be put back into the organization – it doesn't mean you can’t make money. Many of us wonder how we lasted as long as we have with the constant financial losses.

Let’s just say, some Racers and Fans are looking for possible alternate plans in September. Our hopes are high, but we’re not ready to put tens of thousands of dollars into single use aircraft. Will Strega, Voodoo and the rest go the way of Stiletto and become Stockers again? Only time will tell.

In the next few months, we will be taking a look at what can be done, other racing venues coming up in the future and other aviation topics of interest.

As always, thanks to my photographers, Rob “Phred” Miller, Bruce “20W” Croft, Tim “Nice Hat” Adams, and Anthony “Hopper” Taylor.  This month, we’re all Bruce Croft.

Let’s get 2014 off to a great start and go flying!