The Legends of Air Racing...
Czeching In With Sherman Smoot
Story and Photos by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com

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What does a guy do for fun when he began flying at age 14, flew combat missions in F-4 Phantoms off of carriers in the Marines, and is currently a captain of a 767 at work?

He goes air racing at Reno in a highly modified Yak-11 named Czech Mate!

Sherman Smoot did not simply jump into the modified Yak first off. He first came on the air racing scene in 1991 in the AT-6 class when he raced John Mooreís airplane. A strong friendship had developed between the two, and Smoot continued to race the AT-6 until he won the championship race in that class in 1996.

 

With some good T-6 time under his belt, Smoot had other opportunities come his way. At the air races, Smoot had met and become friends with Bill "Tiger" Destefani, owner and pilot of the Strega racing Mustang. At the time, Tiger was partners in a P-47 Thunderbolt with Bill Clark.

 

"Clark asked if I was interested in flying the airplane," Smoot says, "So Tiger jumped up on the wing and showed me how to start it. Off I went. " After the P-47, Smoot went on to fly Tigerís Strega, and his Yak-3. After earning an Unlimited Letter for piston engine aircraft, Smoot also checked out in a Boomerang. Then John Moore called up one day.

Moore had bought Perestroika, a highly modified Yak-11 that had been owned and raced by Bob Yancey. In keeping with the Soviet Bloc theme, Moore renamed the racer Czech Mate and had every intention of racing it in the unlimited class. Built up and modified by Yancey and his crew, the R-2800 powered Yak could always be counted on for being a lively and colorful racer in the gold class. It was good to see it return to racing!

Moore asked if Smoot wanted to race the airplane for him. The answer was in the affirmative.

"Itís been an ongoing evolution," Smoot says. "We started racing it in 1998, and had that spectacular engine blow up that year."

Spectacular is an understatement. Even Hollywood would have had a hard time coming up with a more unbelievable script.

 

"I went out, and the ownerís instructions were to hang with Dreadnought, which you canít do coming downhill during the start. So I asked what power setting he wanted to run. Moore said 3,100 rpm and 70 inches or so. I donít want to say the real number on that... So I did that, and it ran fine. For half a lap..," Smoot says.

Smoot was in the turn on the back of the course by now, and the engine seemed to be running okay. He had the ADI running at this power setting to keep the engine from detonating.

"Coming down the back straightaway, I felt a little Ďuh..,í but they Ďuhí once in a while when you run ADI. So I thought, ĎHmm...í I came around and felt a twitch, and I thought, ĎThat wasnít good.í By this time, my brain has slowed down and everything is in slow motion," Smoot says.

Standing on the ramp at Reno, Smoot is overlooking the pylons and pointing to the various places where the drama is unfolding. "Right about here, at the home pylon, the thing just starts shaking. I pulled up and started a mayday," he says. "It was shaking so bad I thought the motor was going to come off the mount. My head was banging back and forth on the canopy."

 

What the race fans could see was Czech Mate wizzing by the home pylon with a huge trail of smoke behind it. Things were about to get worse, too.

"I pulled the power back and pulled the prop back to get as much zoom as I could," he says. "Then the cockpit filled with smoke, so I couldnít see. I know I am zooming up and the airspeed is bleeding off... And you know that old story about not opening the canopy with a fire, because it will act like a chimney? Well, I just thought if I am going to die, I might as well see what I am going to hit. I couldnít see, so I couldnít do anything."

 

Smoot opened the canopy, rolled the airplane into a left turn and looked down below to see where he was. Spotting runway 14 below him, he considered his approach to the strip. "I had only about four - four and a half hours in the a airplane at that point," Smoot says. "I knew that the power-off stall speed was 122 knots - not mph. I had done a whole stall series earlier. So I did the whole 1.3 Vso thing that works in every airplane that Iíve flown."

 

Shooting for 150 knots, Smoot began to aggressively maneuver to get the aircraft on the runway. "I originally thought I was going to go across the runway and turn back in a 270 degree turn. I start thinking, and I knew what this thing glides like... It glides like a rock. You should see how fast this thing comes out of the sky. It either descends nose down with a lot of speed or nose high and slow. Either way, itís like a rock."

Smoot thought that if he crossed above the runway, he would not have enough airspeed or altitude to make it. He had just put the gear down, so he decided to go for the runway without crossing over. "I pulled around, blew the flaps down, pushed the nose over and pushed the prop back up to add drag," he says as his hands move invisible controls.

The racer, belching smoke and balls of bright orange fire from the right cowling, is S-turning under Smootís control in an effort to get down to the runway. He has to lean his head out of the cockpit in order to see the runway through the smoke. With terrible visibility to begin with, he never was able to see everything  coming out of the airplane. Heís been focused on getting the falling Yak back to the runway.

 

"I never saw any fire, I just knew I had smoke everywhere. I was holding 160 knots on final, because I didnít know what this thing was going to do. On short final, something in my head says, ĎWhy land with a fire bottle that you havenít blown yet?í So I pulled the pin and hit the button to fire the bottle, " he explains.

"I touched about halfway down the runway, but I was fast," he says. "I probably touched down at 150 knots, plus there was a 30 knot tailwind. I didnít have any choice." In an effort to get the airplane slowed down and pinned on the ground, Smoot brought the flaps up and got on the brakes. "Once the tail was down, I locked the brakes up as hard as I could."

Overhead, Steve Hinton and Tiger were watching the mayday from the T-33 Pace/safety aircraft. As every thousand feet of runway went by, the would call out the distance remaining to Smoot over the radio. Past a short dirt overrun, the terrain drops off steeply. Smoot had to get the airplane stopped or ground loop it. If the airplane went over the edge, the chance of surviving were slim and none.

 

"I saw the end coming up, and the David Price thing is running through my head," Smoot explains. In 1988, Price did just about the same thing and ended up having to groundloop his Mustang to get it stopped.

Same predicament, same runway... Now Smoot was forced with taking the same actions.

As he remembers the incident, Smoot recounts thinking over and over in his head, "Oh baby... Stop! Please stop!." As speed drops off, things are beginning to look up. Maybe it would stop...

 

"I know Iím not going to stop by the end of the runway, but there is a dirt overrun down there. I might get it stopped on that. But when the guys said I had 1,000 feet to go, I lined up the tail, stomped a rudder and got on a brake. It went around, and as it did, I thought, ĎOh man! Iím just going to do a groundloop here, stop, and itís going to be cool," he remembers.

 

"Then the left landing gear went into a hole... It went into something... When it did, it pulled the gear out of the well, and the other one went outboard," Smoot says as he lets out a sigh. The racer settled into the dirt in a huge rooster tail of dust. He began unstrapping and desired to exit the aircraft post haste. "One of the few things that sticks in my mind is Iím looking at the right wing covered with oil, and I think that after making all this and the fire, Iím going slip on the wing and break my neck!" This brings a laugh from him.

"So I leap off this thing and launch into the brush," Smoot says. "The fire crew is already there telling me everything is okay, and Iím still hauling ass the other way! I was beating feet!"

Usually reserved for the hopped up Merlin racing engines, the demise of Czech Mateís R-2800 certainly was spectacular. The master connecting rod for the front nine cylinders had failed completely and punched a hole the size of a salad plate in the case. "You could stick your hand in there, and you wouldnít feel anything," he says. "You could get a handful of little parts, but the engine cleaned itself out of the trash. Thatís what caused the oil fire. It was all gone."

 

As any pilot would do, Smoot was "debriefing" in the bar at the Peppermill Casino that night when he saw video of his mayday on a local news channel. "For the first time, I saw myself with the fire coming out," he says. "I thought, ĎHo-ly shit!í You know?"

When he is asked what the owner says after a mayday like that, Smoot chuckles and replies, "John came up to me and gave me a hug and told me he was glad I was ok. He said I did a nice job. Then he turned to the airplane, put his arm around me and said, ĎDaddy! Somebody broke my toy!" That memory brings a hearty laugh from the race pilot.

 

After an experience like that, the question asked of Smoot is if he really does enjoy flying Czech Mate. The nature of this particular racer makes flying and racing it problematic. It is not an easy airplane to operate.

 

"Well, Iíll put it this way," he says. "Itís work. Iím glad we only do this once or twice a year. In this airplane, itís work. When you fly an airplane like Strega, whether you are at 60 inches or 120 inches, the trim is within a roll of the wheel. Itís such a pleasure. In Czech Mate - of course, the Russianís built strong things. But itís a handful. Itís busy."

Smoot goes on to say that he actually does enjoy racing the airplane, and even a former fighter pilot get his blood pumping a bit. "And it does get pumping," he says.

Engine and ADI problems ruined any chance of Czech Mateís run at Reno gold when it returned to race in 2000. The airplane had been refined and some testing had been done for the 2001 races, but they had to be cancelled after the terrorist attacks. Using the time wisely, Moore and his crew have been improving the aircraft even more.

 

"John is very meticulous in the way he does things," Smoot says. "Heís one of these guys that makes one change at a time. Weíll just take our time; weíre not in a hurry."

Most of the improvements have been made underneath the metal. "We finally have a good motor - for the first time," Smoot says. "We hooked up with ADI guru Pete Law - what a gentleman he is! He helped us and got our ADI problem squared away, so we have a good running airplane."

With those problems dealt with, attention turned to another problem. Czech Mate has always been an extremely difficult airplane to fly. "Itís an airplane designed for 700 hp," Smoot explains, "And weíre easily putting out 2,500 plus. With the engine nose case we want installed on the airplane, I have to fly it with full right rudder and full right trim. My foot would fall asleep after a lap or two. It was marginal. The problem was not enough vertical fin, so we got Jim Larsen - an aeronautical engineer - to work on the vertical fin. Weíve added almost three feet to the vertical, and it makes a world of difference. Now I just have to hold a little bit of right rudder."

 

The horizontal stabilizers have also been changed, due to some pitch sensitivity. "The airplane is very pitch sensitive," Smoot says. "We changed the angle on the horizontal stabilizer. I found that at race power, I was flying the airplane with all the nose down trim. That is something we were able to do, so we basically changed the whole tail, and it seems to be working. I wicked it up to race power for a lap or two here at the Pylon Seminar. I donít know how it sounded at 50 inches, but it felt good."

"Iíve had it to 434 mph, but they say Yancey had it up to 455 - 460 as an unofficial speed. We have to be up to 450 mph - that would be really good. Weíre still experimenting with prop and all that stuff now that weíre comfortable with the engine." He looks like a kid with a cool new toy as he explains.

Like other unlimited racers, the Czech Mate team was out at the June Pylon Racing Seminar to take advantage of wavered airspace and time on the race course.

 

"Weíre here just to get back in the saddle again. We never did get a chance to get on the course in 2001 when they changed it, so itís good to be able to go out there and find the pylons and get everything dialed in. Smoot was also getting practice taking off and landing the hybrid racer. Due to the "slow" nose case for the engine, they are running a longer prop. Itís still a cut down unit, but itís long enough to require three-point takeoffs and landings.

"We had to put steel collars on the oleos so the shock struts wouldnít compress. Thatís how critical the prop clearance is," he says. "All the give I have on the landing is the compression of the rubber tire, so itís pretty stiff. But thereís only six inches of clearance between the prop and the ground, so I really have to do it right."

Czech Mateís return to Reno in 2002 is, in ways, going to mark the return of another "colorful racer." Itís not a world-beating unlimited, but the aircraft does add a lot of flavor to the races, and will be in the thick of competition come race week. Much like Precious Metal, Risky Business and the late Super Corsair, these 450 mph racers add a lot to the event and certainly lend their spice to the competition.

Story and Photos by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved.

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