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funky little sport of Unlimited air racing is populated by several types
of people. You have your independently wealthy owners such as Wiley
Sanders, Rhino and Howard Pardue. Then you have the people that might
not have the financial depth, but they have the talent and resources to
build what they race. Think of the Sanders family, the Chino Kids and
Greenamyer. Everybody has different abilities and dukes it out around
Now imagine the saloon doors banging open. Through the backlit dusty air ambles Skip Holm; Hired Gun. He plays the part perfectly... Clear, sharp eyes, measured moves, a mustache and a base of skill and experience to back up what he says.
"The key is never be an owner," Holm laughs (Right, in 1985). "They have to write the checks and pick up the pieces." True to his philosophy, Holm has always been a hired gun at Reno and has a successful race record to boot. He has five unlimited gold race wins; three in Dago Red, one in Jeannie and one in Stiletto. He has raced a long list of airplanes; many too touchy, too cantankerous, or too dangerous for lesser pilots to fly. Through it all, he has always raced to his, or the airplaneís, best ability. How he got into air racing is a very good story.
Right Place, Right Time
Holmís history is well known; after a near disastrous T-33 intro-flight when he was young, he joined the Air Force and flew three combat tours in Vietnam in F-105s and F-4s. After that, he attended the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards. While stationed there, he kept away from a P-51 sitting in the hangar. "You never wanted to express interest in it," he said. "Somebody might get the idea youíd want to fly it." Apparently, props in a jet air force were taboo, even back then. Itís ironic that the P-51 would figure so prominently in his future. After his Air Force career, he became a Lockheed test pilot and flew, among other things, Have Blue, the F-117, F-104 and the U-2. He also did cockpit concept work on the F-22 Raptor.
While at Lockheed in the early eighties, Holm was in Bill Parkís office when the phone rang. A man on the phone asked Park if he knew anybody that could fly an F-86 Sabre (Right). Park covered the phone and asked the two men in his office if either knew how to fly an F-86. "Half my time is in that," Holm replied. Years later, he said you should always say that half of your time is in whatever airplane they ask about. "Otherwise, people will think youíre some schmuck that canít fly airplanes."
The man on the phone turned out to be Dave Zeuschel, and the F-86 was the one he had just restored. He needed a pilot to fly and test it. Through that phone call, Skip met Dave and the two would form a lasting friendship. But the F-86 needed to be flown, so the two drove to Chino Airport so Holm could take a look at the plane. "It became apparent that we werenít going to fly that day," Holm said. "It was kind of like a courtship. Dave introduced me to the airplane; it was kind of like taking a manís wife out on a date. He thought the world of his airplane, and I thought it was one of the nicest airplanes I had ever seen." When the short courtship ended, Holm finally got to fly the -86 and loved it. But what was more important is the relationship that began between Dave and Skip. "Dave always looked out for my interests," Holm said. "We understood each other."
A short time later, Dave called Skip. The conversation went something like this:
"Skip, you want to fly a race plane?"
"Itís the Reno air races. You know what they are?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Are you sure you are sure?"
"Yeah, I think so. What kind of airplane is it?"
"Itís a P-51 Mustang."
"Are those airplanes any good? Will it win?"
"This is the best one around."
So Skip Holm was going to fly a race plane, or so he thought.
"I went down to the hangar and Dave opened the door and I saw Jeannie (Below) for the first time. I wasnít horribly impressed with the airplane. I looked at it, and I guess I expected something really whippy and it didnít look like it was whippy. It was real shiny; thatís one thing I remember..," he said. "It had a small cockpit, so it looked like it would go fast, but it still looked like something was missing."
Passing the Test
Holm had one test to pass, and that came when Wiley Sanders, owner of the shiny but not whippy Mustang, came to meet him. "You got any Mustang time?," Sanders asked. "No." "You got any tailwheel time?," Sanders asked. "No." "Well, you must have been doing a lot of racing, then..," Sanders said. "Well, no. Iíve actually never been to a race." Sanders turned and searched for a dime to call his choice for a real race pilot.
"Tell him SOMETHING," Zeuschel piped up. Holm thought for a second and spoke. "Well, I was in a race once," he said. "I raced a MiG across Laos once. And he lost."
Sanders paused, turned, walked back to his Gulfstream II and flew away. "Dave, what does that mean?," Holm said. Zeuschel, or "Z" as his friends and peers called him, said it meant they were going to go fly the airplane. The next step was to get Holm up in the racer and get familiar with it. "I got in it with just a headset, and it had this little bitty canopy on it," he said. "I got it out there on the active at Van Nuys, added power, and got it rolling. Dave is in Pete Reginaís Mustang, and it dawns on me we are doing a formation takeoff. In the military, we always watched our guys. So, I turned my head to see him and he wasnít there. He was taking spacing. But my head got stuck ninety degrees in that small canopy, so I had to let go of the airplane, reach up and get the headset off," he said.
Now imagine being Dave Zeuschel at this point... You are watching your pilot of choice try and take off in a racing Mustang, losing control of it, and getting off the side of the runway in the dirt and weeds.
"When I got airborne, it was kicking up dirt and stuff on the edge of the runway. Letting go of a Mustang is not a good idea," Holm remembers without smiling.
Do Mustangs Need Coolant?
The two got airborne and changed frequencies. "Hey Dave, what do all these gauges mean?" Holm had no clue what they were. "One of them is way up over the redline..." Dave asked which one. "It says 'coolant.'" It turns out the coolant temperature was pegging. "You better pull the power back and land right now," Zeuschel radioed. Holm landed back at Van Nuys ok; the culprit turned out to be a pinhole leak in the coolant line.
They went out the next day; one that was overcast and dreary. "We got into the clouds over Magic Mountain, and I donít think he was impressed with me all along," Holm recounts. "I couldnít turn the airplane - he had to show me how to unlock the tailwheel. I was just riding the brake and skidding the tailwheel around. The I almost left the runway on takeoff... I thought the coolant thing must have been my fault, too. I didnít realize that was his problem. I thought I had done something wrong and almost ruined the airplane. So, anyway, he wasnít too impressed. I thought on this flight I would impress him. I turned around and saw him coming up behind me. I just cranked the airplane over. This is always a good way to impress folks in the military. About this time, the airplane snaps and goes down into the clouds."
Some moments later, as Dave flew along wondering where the racing airplane and race pilot went, the two magically reappeared from the murk below. "I popped back up through the clouds right beside him. He just sat there and shook his head," Holm says while laughing.
Zeuschel and Holm returned after the flight and discussed things. Holm didnít have any problem actually flying the airplane, it was takeoff and landing that was of any concern. That was something that would come in time, and Zeuschel would be there to coach. "Ok, letís go to Reno," Zeuschel said. Skip Holm was going to be a race pilot. When the time came to launch for Stead, another Zeuschel/Holm exchange occurred.
"You know where the races are, Skip?," Zeuschel asked. "Yeah, Reno!," Holm said. "Well, they are at Stead, just northwest of Reno..," Zeuschel said. "Ok.," Holm said. "Can you find it?" "Yep!" Holm took off arrived safely at Stead.
"Dave was the only one that told me I was going to fly the airplane," Holm said. "A lot of other people told me I was never going to fly it; that I was just going to ferry it up there and Mac (McClain) was going to race it. No one ever promised me that I would be the only one flying the airplane, and I never assumed that, either. I was just happy to be there. And that is what I like - a new experience. I didnít know if I was getting something or missing something." ĎMací McClain had been Jeannieís original race pilot, but he was fighting cancer and wasnít well enough to race. Holm was there to take the reigns.
Once at Stead, some buzz centered on the rookie with the hot ride. Phil Barber, the long time Reno Gazette race reporter, interviewed the rookie before the airplane was qualified and asked how fast he was going to go. "I didnít know anything," Holm said. "I didnít know the course, and I didnít know how fast the airplane would go. I had no idea how fast the airplane had ever gone... So I looked at the side of the airplane and it said 436 mph or something like that from the year before. I thought if this thing does 436 in a race for eight laps, it should go faster for just one lap. So I told Phil I was going to go 450, and he just laughed at me. He asked why I picked 450 mph. Well, it was my room number at the Hilton..."
Barber again laughed because the rookie had predicted his qualifying speed was going to be 450 mph because his hotel room number was 450. No one had ever gone 450 mph at Reno!
Pete Law and Bruce Boland were two Lockheed engineers that worked on the modifications of Jeannie, and they were present in the pit. Holm asked Law to fiddle with his slide rule and figure out what power setting would net a 450 mph lap. Law, a very personable and precise man, did the quick math and told Holm he would have to run 105 inches of manifold pressure and 3,600 RPM. "Easy deal!," Holm laughs years after the fact.
Well, guess what..? Holm went out and spun Jeannie up to 105 and 3,600 and ripped off a lap at 450.085 mph. Talk about accuracy.
"I thought this was just like flight test... They give you a number, you go out and fly it, and come back within a few thousandths of a second," Holm said. "I didnít think it was any big deal. Now I do. Now I would never think Pete could get you within 10 kts. Itís nothing against Pete, itís just that there is so much technique to it."
In the beginning, Holm also didnít know that engines blew up. People had talked about it, but he thought they were exaggerating. Holm said, "After qualifying, McClain (Right) came out and said one mistake I was making is that I was making it look too easy. ĎDonít do that,í he said. ĎBecause people will get the wrong idea. You came back from a flight - it worked. It might not work sometimes.í"
Holm went on to win Reno in 1981 as a rookie. Since then, Holm has cemented his reputation as a hard charger - a real racer. Since his Cinderella beginning, Holm has raced Mustangs, Yaks, Sea Furies and Bearcats, plus the purpose built Tsunami. During his tenure, many have come to think that Holm is hard on the equipment - he has landed a lot of broken, powerless racers at the races. "I never understood that," Holm said. "If you go back and ask all of the owners I have flown for, theyíll tell you I have always done exactly what they have said to do. I have always run the power they wanted," he said.
You Had Better Lace Your Boots Up Tight...
One thing is for sure - Holm is regarded as one of the top race pilots of all time, and he brings a level of precision, skill and experience to the party. Very few drivers offer what Holm does with the level of consistency he displays. During one of the Pylon Racing Seminars, Alan Preston was talking about some of the different pilots they would be flying with. Some guys that race at Reno are middle of the road, a few are shaky, and then you have The Racers.
"If youíre up against guys like Tiger, Shelton or Holm, you had better lace your boots up tight, because they are here to race. They are here to win." (Holm, right, with wife Dede in 2003)
A fitting perception of Skip Holm - Hired Gun. Add a cowboy hat, a six shooter and some boots... The clear-eyed aviator could still be sitting in a dusty saloon in the west, recounting his tales to the pilots further down the pecking order. But he does it without ego or bravado. He speaks to others on a even level and with an air of comaraderie. He includes and involves others. His stories could last for hours on end... Jeannie, Mr. Awesome, Blind Manís Bluff/Critical Mass, Tsunami, Super K, Miss Ashley II, and Dago Red... and those stories donít even begin to cover the people involved within each tale.
Check in for Part Two Some Time in the Future...
Story by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Skip Holm. Technical drawing courtesy of Taichiro Yamashita. Photos of Jeannie by Emil Strasser and Gerald Liang. Photo of Mac McClain Courtesy of Pete Law. All other photos by Scott Germain.
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