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So 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.

The 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.

When 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.

"The 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 nightmare.

Hisey 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.

Hisey 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, either.

"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 engine compartment..."

All 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 happened."
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.
"I 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.

Race 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 even worse.

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..."

Miss 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 aircraft.

In 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.

Hisey 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 runway."

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.

I 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 the desert."

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.

"Time 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."

Hisey 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.

At 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.

David 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."

Special Thanks to Dr. Brent Hisey, Scotty Butler, Simon Brown, Jan Peters and Jerry Day.

Copyright 2003 - Scott Germain / WarbirdAeroPress.com. Photos Copyright Listed Photographer. No Material May be Used Without Express Permission of the Writer or Copyright Holder.

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