From Critical Mess to Critical Acclaim
Warbird Aero Press Talks with Critical Mass Owner and Pilot Tom Dwelle

Story and Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press

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Hard luck is easy to find around the pylons at Stead. Consider the variables with fielding a gold class unlimited air racer, and you will come to understand that good luck plays a role in taking the checkered flag while in first place. But even before you do that, you have to develop your race aircraft to be merely capable of competing at that level, let alone winning. One aircraft that has been a hard luck story since its debut is Critical Mass, the bright red Hawker Sea Fury owned and raced by Tom Dwelle.

When the aircraft debuted back in 1987, it caused somewhat of a stir in the pits. Painted orange and black, the modified two-seat T.Mk.20 Sea Fury looked every inch a racer. Big talk filtered among the rank and file in the stands, but experienced Reno racers knew better. An aircraft like this needs time to mature.

 

Eric Loretzen, of the Levelor Blind Company, owned the aircraft and aptly named it Blind Man’s Bluff.

The team’s plan was to modify the two seat Sea Fury into a Gold class racer. Modifications included clipped wings, an R-3350 powerplant, a Skyraider propeller, and the removal of the front cockpit. The rear one would be used as the "office," and a small canopy with an incredibly long windscreen was attached.

One of the most interesting ideas about Blind Man’s Bluff, assigned race number 88, was that the R-3350 was set up to burn methanol. The physics behind such a choice were either sound or stupid, depending on how you felt about the tradeoffs. While burning methanol, the BTU’s that translate to horsepower increase, but so does the rate of consumption. The result is more horsepower, but you have to carry a lot more fuel to get through a typical Reno pylon race.

Loretzen also wanted a female to race the aircraft, so air show performer Joanne Osterud was drafted for stick duties.

With a plan to take their time and have the racer sorted out for 1988, the team seemed to get what current owner Dwelle calls "Buck Fever." It was decided Blind Man’s Bluff would race at Reno 1987, which they did. Unfortunately, the aircraft was nowhere near sorted out and experienced numerous problems.

When Osterud had trouble getting her race checkout in the aircraft, Skip Holm strapped on Race 88 and qualified the temperamental beast at approximately 380 mph. Holm has said the aircraft possessed a very high workload; there were a lot of Cessna-type knobs and levers that operated various systems. Visibility out of the cockpit was terrible, too, with he odd style windscreen. Through the week, it seemed the team went through R-3350's like a hot knife through butter. Running methanol had not been reduced to an exact science. The tally at the end of the week was 5 or 6 burned up engines, and a few crew members with alcohol burns.

 

For various reasons, not the least of which was the poor debut, the racer was sold to Bill Woods in Oregon. With an eye on racing an unlimited, he named the aircraft Wanna Play II. Upon departing for the 1990 Reno races, a problem occurred with the landing gear and it would not fully retract. In company with Bob Yancey and his modified Yak-11 Perestroika, Woods proceeded to Stead while trying to sort the problem out. The flight of two arrived over the air field, and Yancey went ahead and landed. Woods stayed aloft and orbited; still trying to find a solution. Time and fuel were both running out, and Woods was forced to land the aircraft.

During the landing, the landing gear collapsed fully and the prop blades ticked and folded back. The result was the nose being jerked to the right as the aircraft slid off the runway and into the dirt. Woods climbed from the wreck with a few bruises but was otherwise unhurt. The bent, broken and dust-covered racer was put on a flat bed truck and stuffed in a hangar at the east corner of Stead Airport. There would be no Reno 1990 for Bill Woods.

Meanwhile, a man by the name of Tom Dwelle was making a name for himself in the T-6 ranks at Reno. He had first raced at Reno in 1987 and finished 15th; not too bad for a rookie. Taking that experience and improving upon it, he returned to Reno in 1988 and finished in second place, a major improvement for a man proving himself as a true racer. 1989 was even better; he took the T-6 Gold race in his Harvard Mk. II Tinkertoy, and again in 1990.

During the 1990 race week, Dwelle had walked down to the east end and saw the remains of the Sea Fury. He spoke with Bill Woods with an eye on acquiring the remains. "Bill," he said, "I’m going to trade you straight across for this Sea Fury. My Gold Champion AT-6 for this Sea Fury." Dwelle said it took about three months to sort through the deal and the insurance claims, but his persistence paid off. Soon after, Dwelle had traveled back to Stead to take apart his new aircraft and truck it back to his Auburn, California base. "That’s the slickest deal I ever had," Dwelle said with a grin.

The aircraft was really a wreck upon close inspection. "We did a lot of sheet metal work on the airplane," he says. It took the crew until 1993 to get it all back together and ready to fly. The Sea Fury was repainted in a poppy red coat with a large black and white bordered stripe down the sides. Race number 10 was assigned, and the name Critical Mass adorned the aircraft. "Taz," as in the Tasmanian Devil, was painted on the A-26 cowling to complete the effect. Even if it wasn’t groomed to perfection, at least it looked like a 500 mph racer.

Since the aircraft was at low power when it bellied in, the crew had taken a quick look at the motor and decided it was fit to run. Dwelle figured he would run the engine and see what kind of numbers it would make. "I would see if the numbers were good; if they were, I’d fly it. That was ill conceived. I know now that when an engine like this goes into the dirt, it really messes things up."

He wasn’t kidding.

When the propeller blades contacted the runway back in 1990, what little power there was being generated was transferred through the nose case gears and to the bearings and engine mount. This caused internal damage that went unseen by the new crew.

When Dwelle fired up the engine and ran it, it indeed showed signs of being healthy. Oil pressure and temperature was fine, but internally, the components in the nose case were not getting along with the rest of the engine. Small gears were coming apart, getting chopped up and contaminating the oil system. None of this manifested itself during Dwelle’s test flights and checkout.

As it turns out, the -3350 Dwelle was using was the same engine Lyle Shelton had used in 1985. Not only had it suffered through the gear up landing, it had been thrashed on in previous races.

Once at Stead, Dwelle took off on his first qualifying flight, and put real power to the engine for the first time. The vibration and shaking ended up breaking the cowling mounts and cracking an exhaust pipe. Through that night, the crew worked hard to rectify those problems. The next day, Dwelle got his racer qualified at 375.982 mph - even with the inner gear door hanging in the breeze! So far, things were looking up for Dwelle at Reno ‘93.

"Well, I managed to get about fifteen hours from that engine before it failed," Dwelle said. Indeed, during Friday’s silver race, the R-3350's bearings came apart and deconstructed the rest of the engine. Dwelle made an uneventful deadstick landing. Surely disappointed, he vowed to return.

In the off season, the failed engine was replaced with a spare unit, and he returned to Reno in 1994. Dwelle, an ex-military aviator with over 300 combat mission, possesses traits such as competitiveness, aggressiveness and tenacity; all good things to have if you’re an unlimited air racer. His improving performance around the pylons was, unfortunately, upstaged by an unsafe pass during a race. Some members of the unlimited class protested, and the result was Dwelle’s disqualification from further racing. To Dwelle’s credit, instead of packing up and going home, he handed the reins over to his backup pilot, Skip Holm. (Thankfully, since that time, Dwelle has reconciled the incident and continues to be an integral part of the unlimited group.. )

Critical Mass, with Holm at the stick, went on to finish the 1994 Gold race in fourth at 392.134 mph. The racer had been worked on and was creeping ever closer to the 400 mph mark. The racer had been developed, to an extent, and was enjoying a degree of success. Could the next year or two see the fruition of Dwelle & Company’s hard work?

1995 and 1996 came and went without a showing from Dwelle and Critical Mass. One reason for this was damage inflicted on the airframe and to Dwelle himself. As an oxygen bottle was being serviced, it exploded and inflicted damage to the racer and personal injuries to Dwelle. Through perseverance, Dwelle overcame his injuries, rebuilt the damage, and got back to flying.

In 1997, the aircraft returned to the pylons with Holm once again at the controls. The red racer had built quite a following with the fans, and it always looked like a hot ship. Holm qualified Critical Mass at an impressive 403.006 mph. Friday’s heat race seemed to confirm the fact that the aircraft was now in the 400 mph club, as Holm won the race at 397.905 mph; not truly 400 mph, but close enough.

With the win on Friday, Holm bumped up to the gold heat on Saturday. He kept hold of second place for a little while until Dennis Sanders passed him. A few moments later, Holm declared a mayday, pulled the racer off the course, and landed on runway 26. As he shut the aircraft down, it was evident that a large portion of the cowling had failed and the pieces had blown back into the horizontal stab.

Between the 1997 races and the 1999 event, Critical Mass was the subject of a modification program that upgraded many areas of the aircraft, and sorted out other areas. When the aircraft had first been built, the vertical stabilizer had been lengthened, but possessed a slab cross section. "The late, great Bruce Boland wrote how to fix it, right there on the stabilizer. It was there," Dwelle points, "Written in pen, right on there. I always wanted that to remain there, but somebody removed in when we reworked the tail," he said. The vertical stabilizer now has a NACA airfoil cross section and is 11 inches shorter. The change has resulted in much better directional control and improved flying qualities.

The racer also received new fairings along the wing/fuselage junction and a DC-7 cowling. But the most important modification made was the engine. Dwelle had hired Dave Cornell, the man responsible for developing Rare Bear’s engine. Cornell built up a second generation "Rare Bear R-3350" for the Critical Mass Team, and they were truly off to the races at this point. As the saying goes, Critical Mass was the slowest overnight success in history. She was coming into her own.

"Dave and I really hit it off," Dwelle said. "So we put together a deal. He is a true engineer, and a racer’s racer." Cornell built up a new, turbo-compound R-3350. Due to the additional length of that engine, the oil tank had to be relocated to the cockpit; right behind the fuel tank and right in front of Dwelle. "Nice, huh?," he laughs. Dwelle reports that the tank is well insulated, and the heat level in the cockpit is manageable at race power settings.

With all of the new mods and increased available horsepower, hope ran high for the Critical Mass gang. The highlight of their race week was Sunday’s gold race, when Dwelle passed the irrepressible Dreadnought. But all was not well with the new engine; and Dwelle knew it.

"I had some vibration I was not comfortable with," he said. "Things were not right during the ‘99 gold race, and I knew it. Nevertheless, I had all the balls to the wall," he said, referring to the ball knobs of the throttle, prop and mixture controls. Even with an engine that was becoming unhappy, his speed was in the 460 range; a stunning increase of approximately 60 mph over previous years!

Then all Hell broke loose.

"The exhaust valve on the number eleven cylinder stuck open and all of the sodium came out. It turned the whole thing into a blowtorch... It melted everything in the immediate vicinity; the coil, the spark plugs, and the top of the cylinder. Then it backfired. With the valve open, during the intake cycle, it can fire back through the supercharger and carburetor. It did that, and it sneezed," Dwelle recounted. "It blew off the intake tubes that run down to the intakes at the leading edge of the wings."

With the engine not making any power and smoke streaming from the aircraft, Dwelle knew what had happened. "Ken - number one son - said over the radio, ‘Dad, you’re smoking...’ I said, ‘That’s what makes it go!’" All kidding aside, Ken had a more real concern for his father. "Dad, you’re on fire. Shut it down and bring it on in..."

In Dwelle’s typical fashion, he grins and gets a sparkle in his eye. "I was going so damn fast, when I pulled up, that thing went right up to 10,000 feet! Tiger blew up right after I did, so when I deadsticked on runway 8, he came in on 14, and we almost had a meeting at the end," Dwelle laughs. "That was actually pretty interesting. Lockwood was then able to throttle back and coast the rest of the way. Bruce later told me that the engine was coming apart and he could not have run the rest of the race at full power."

Dwelle said he knew that engine just wasn’t right. When they pulled it apart, they found their "new" engine had used pistons and valves. Since then, the team has overhauled the engine, repaired the damage and balanced the pistons. He credits the power and smoothness of the new engine to Larry Klassen, the team’s engine guru.

At the 2000 Pylon Racing Seminar in June, Dwelle had the aircraft flying daily, getting some slow time on the engine and gathering data. After each flight, Dwelle shut down with big grin on his face. If the sound of the engine and the mood of the crew were any indication, all is well under the hood of Critical Mass for Reno 2000. "Look at those pipes," Dwelle said as he pointed to the exhaust. "They’re all clean. Before, we had oil and crap all over the airplane and the ramp. It was really a mess."

"This engine runs a hell of a lot smoother," he says. "Klassen used to build up my T-6 race engines, and he’s done a super job with this R-3350. We’re getting four more inches of boost than Rare Bear ever got, and while I have more RPM available, I won't use it," he says. "I’ve had quite enough big explosions right under my nose. The crew would be real happy if we had something to fly home on Monday."

Speaking of flying, Dwelle enjoys the flying duties in the red racer. "Stick forces are very light," he said. "I’m flying the boost tabs on the ailerons, not the ailerons themselves. It actually feels like they are hydraulically boosted controls." The tail modification has also made lateral control much better, but like all racers, visibility remains an issue.

"Visibility is good in the air, but very bad on the ground." he said. Since the front cockpit has been removed, Dwelle sits pretty far back in the fuselage. "That huge engine blocks everything from ten o’clock to the two o’clock position when taxiing," Dwelle said. His home field’s 60 foot by 3,100 foot runway makes takeoff and landing a difficult task. "The first time was really hairy," Dwelle laughed. He arranged to have his younger son, Tom Jr., fly behind him in a T-6 to ensure that dad was lined up with the runway and maintained the centerline during roll out.

"Let’s just say my butt was holding on so tight to the ‘chute, I didn’t need a seatbelt!," he laughs.

As this is written, Reno 2000 is right around the corner, and some great competition is in store for unlimited air racing fans. Former champions Strega, Dago Red, and Dreadnought will be there to vie for the gold, along with other dark horse racers such as Voodoo, Czech Mate and Furias. Having Critical Mass thrown into the fray makes the prospects for the gold race very exciting. We have all the makings of a super shootout, and the possibility of lap speeds close to that magical 500 mph mark.

Although competition will be stronger than ever, Tom Dwelle and Critical Mass will be well prepared for the challenges and hurdles they will undoubtedly face. The aircraft itself has been sorted out, and its speed performance verifies the team is on the right track.

Thanks to Tom Dwelle for taking the time to grant Warbird Aero Press an interview, and for his time in follow up conversations. Look for Warbird Aero Press sponsorship of Critical Mass at Reno 2000. Copyright 2000.

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