there you are, tooling around the unlimited course in your
race-modified P-51 Mustang. It isnít just a Mustang, though, itís
the legendary number 11 Miss America. Youíve worked for
many months to get it ready for Reno. Your crew has spent a lot of
time getting the aircraft up to snuff for a week of racing, and
your brand new racing Merlin has been installed at the race site.
The checks you wrote to pay for it all have even cleared the bank.
Itís time to go racing.
morning at Stead Field, where the Reno National Championship Air
Races are held, was clear, calm and perfect for a hot qualifying
session. The person in the scenario above is Miss America owner
and pilot Brent Hisey. He was coming up on the power to take his
second qualifying lap. The red, white and blue racer has been at
Reno for many years with several different owners and pilots.
Since buying the racer in the early 1990's. Hisey has flown the
aircraft quite a bit, and he is no slouch around the pylons. This
year, the Miss America Team arrived at Reno with some major mojo
under the hood. They were ready for some balls-out racing. Hisey
badly wanted a win.
Reno rolls around every September, some teams have simply washed their
stock aircraft and launched for the high desert. They pack a station
wagon with a spare tire, some tools and a cooler of drinks and snacks.
They might even have an RV to park in the pits. Teams with modified
racers might spend an entire year planning, modifying, building and
changing to get ready for the races. The race engine is overhauled,
shops are booked, parts are fabricated or bought and manpower is
engaged. Reno isn't only September; it can be year-round.
|For Brent Hisey and Miss America
crew, the high hopes for Reno 2002 were riding on a new racing
Merlin built up by Rick Shanholzer in his Texas shop. The engine
would be a mix and match of parts that would provide more
horsepower than Miss America had ever had before. The base of the
engine consisted of a
Merlin -9 block and blower. Allison connecting rods were used;
they are larger and stronger that the stock Merlin rods. Jack
Rousch high compression racing pistons and Merlin 620 heads and
banks topped off the concoction. Each part put into this engine
served a higher purpose in racing; stronger, more, better... A
stock Merlin is asked to produce 61 inches of manifold pressure,
3,100 rpm and 1,425 hp. at takeoff. Shanholzerís engine would be
living in the 120 inch and 3,400 rpm range.
engine program went really well," Hisey said during the races.
"We have the utmost confidence in Ricky (Shanholzer)." The
racing engine had been run on the test stand, and turned in a good
performance before being bolted into the airplane at the races. "We
were very pleased with the engine," he said, "and it performed
fine on the preliminary test flights."
But what happened next is every race pilotís
took off in Miss America to get the aircraft qualified. The air
was almost perfect during the Tuesday morning unlimited session,
and Hisey had already made several test flights to slow-time the
engine. Satisfied all was well, he dropped the nose of the Mustang
and pumped up the manifold pressure. Switches were activated to
bring the ADI and spraybars on line; systems that had to run to
keep a Merlin engine happy at any power setting over 65 inches.
was monitoring the systems as he dropped onto the course and found his
groove. Miss America was humming and scooting over the sagebrush pretty
good. He called for the clock and fired off his first qualifying lap in
the 400 mph neighborhood. Not the best it would do, but not too bad,
"I was at 100 inches and 3,200 rpm, and thinking
to myself how smooth the engine was running; how cool it was
running," Hisey said while sitting in his empty pit under a small
tent. His hands are held like theyíre resting on the stick and
throttle. In an apparent understatement, Hisey made his next statement.
"Then there was a loud boom from the
at once, the smooth running Merlin under Miss Aís cowling had
popped, and turned against Hisey in a big way. "Everything
started shaking - violently," Hisey said. "There was
smoke coming out of the sides of the engine and oil was coming up
on the windscreen. It was obvious something catastrophic had
|There are unlimited pilots who have
had engine failures at Reno, but only a small number of them have
experienced one where the engine is so badly torn up that the
internal oil supply to the propeller is affected. Brent can now
join that group of men. Miss Americaís Merlin had indeed come
apart, but at this point, Hisey only knew the engine had failed,
He was reacting to the situation as he knew it.
was doing around 400 mph in between pylon six and seven," he
said, "so I pulled up to get as much altitude as possible. I
left the flaps up to keep the airplane clean." So far, so
good... But Hisey was only dealing with an engine failure. What
was really happening within the engine, and how serious it was,
wasnít clear yet. Hisey converted his speed to altitude, turned
left to the runway, and was looking good for a deadstick landing
on runway 32.
pilots are told to aim one-third of the way down the runway as a
touchdown point; a technique that ensures that they will have no problem
making the runway in high winds or with other problems. An "other
problem" was about to become apparent, and make Hiseyís bad day
Back in the comfort of his pit after the incident,
Hisey describes his actions as if heís flying again. "I selected
gear down because I thought I had the diagonal, runway 32, made..."
America was passing south of the grandstands and heading for the
runway trailing smoke and various fluids. At this point, the
engine was really coming apart. Several connecting rods had
smashed through the engineís case, expelling oil and fuel into
the cowling. Another of the rods punched through the engine case
and knocked the generator off of its mount. The mixture of fuel,
oil and electricity started a small fire. The breaking and
churning metal also cut off oil pressure to the propeller. This
was the big problem; Hisey was looking good until the prop was
starved of oil pressure. At this point, the four blade of the prop
twisted to flat pitch and exponentially increased drag on the
the cockpit, Hisey was now dealing with flying a clip-wing, gliding
Mustang that was on fire. He had vibration, smoke and not enough
airspeed or altitude to get back to a runway. With this change of
events, he might not even make the airport, let alone the runway.
During the Pylon Racing Seminar at Reno, and in many
of the briefings during race week, the pilots are taught and reminded
about the extraordinary drag created by one of these propellers when the
blades go flat. Veteran race pilot Bill "Tiger" Destefani has
dealt with that exact problem; and he made the runway with - literally -
inches to spare. "Thatís an 11 foot 3 inch disc of drag out
there, and itís really amazing how it will decelerate
you," Tiger said.
whole heartedly agrees with Tiger as he picks up the story.
"When the oil pressure went to zero and the prop went flat,
my airspeed went away dramatically. You know, we practice the
engine out at idle, and itís difficult. But that prop out there
- flat - is a huge airbrake. When that happened, I tried to get
the nose down even further. Then it was an issue of geometry of
trying to maintain enough airspeed and make it to the end of the
Fans and crews that were watching Hisey were holding
their breath as they watched the smoking racer bank towards the runway,
then seemingly slow down in mid air and drop. It wasnít flying so much
as it was falling.
turned towards 32, and when I did I felt the left wing try to
stall," Hisey said. Any more bank angle or back pressure on
the stick would have meant a stall and hitting the ground in an
uncontrolled manner. Hisey had no airspeed, rapidly dwindling
altitude and only one place to go. "In the end, the airspeed
was so low that the airplane started to roll in the turn to the
runway. My only survivable course was to go straight ahead into
Pilot and warbird restoration expert Simon Brown
witnessed the mayday from the east side of the field, and Hisey passed
by him very low. "It looked like he was coming down sideways and
tail first," Brown said. "He did the only thing he could have
done." The aircraft arrived over the runway off heading, nearly
stalled, wings banked slightly left and tail low. Smoke was still coming
out of the cowl and up over the windscreen. Hisey didnít have enough
speed for anything; he hit the runway and immediately went off the right
side into the scrub. Although he was slow, there was still enough speed
to possibly flip the airplane over.
seemed to stand still from the first impact. There was enough oil on the
windshield that I didnít have any vision out the front, but I could
see scrub brush going by on the sides. I never hit my head on the canopy
or the canopy rail, so the straps held fine. It was a bumpy ride... Then
I felt the plane go airborne and hit again. Thatís when I felt the
right gear shear off and the wing dig in. That spun the airplane
around," Hisey sighed. "It happened very rapidly."
thinks for a second. "Then it was very quiet."
As the dust settled, emergency
crews and Miss Aís concerned crew were already enroute to Hisey.
When they got there, they saw a bent and broken racer covered in
oil and dirt, landing gear ripped off, a bent tail, and a dusty
and sweaty Brent Hisey.
Going over the mayday a few days later in his empty
pit, Hisey thinks back and wonders aloud at what he would have done
differently. "I wish I had put the canopy back earlier, but at the
time I had my hands full. I just cranked back the canopy, got out, and
waited for people to show up," he said. He almost managed a smile.
"That was a pretty wild ride. Weíd had engine problems before,
but this is the first time Iíve ever had an off airport landing. I
felt very confident in the airframe, and unless something catastrophic
happened on the ground, this was a survivable event," he said.
the time of the interview, Shanholzer hadnít determined the
sequence of events that took place, and it is unlikely they will
ever really know. The engine was taken back to his shop and torn
down in an effort to learn why it failed so spectacularly.
Hisey got to take a look at the
motor after the airplane was deposited within a fenced-in area to
be dismantled for the truck ride home. It really was something to
see! "All the parts on the inside are on the outside... It
looks like the engine was almost cut in half," Hisey
commented. Over the next several days, crew chief Larry Butler and
the Miss America crew took the aircraft apart and made
arrangements to get the airplane back home. Once back in Oklahoma,
a survey was made of the damage and the overall condition of the
airframe, and a plan was made to get the racer back into the air.
Teeters of B & D Enterprises in California is tasked with
reconstructing the wings, and is doing a truly superb job.
Warbirds, Inc. is finishing up the fuselage in Oklahoma City; Miss
Americaís home base. It is also high quality work. "It will
truly be one of the finest restorations," Hisey says.
"We hope to re-mate all of the pieces and systems and fly some
time this summer. Shanholzer is building a new race engine and
Miss America will have a new look that may surprise some people.
Hopefully, it will also increase her speed." There will also
be some new pieces on the racer.
Hisey has been at the air racing game long enough to know that
sometimes, things donít work out the way you plan them to.
"Needless to say, problems are just part of the deal when you do
business in the unlimited class at Reno, " he says. Looking forward
to this year, nobody is saying for sure whether or not they will make
the deadline. "Nothing is for sure about Reno 2003 until we show up
on the ramp. These things take time, and we will not cut corners."