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you donít know Art Vance (right), you are missing out on knowing one of
aviationís premiere comedians. His deadpan delivery belies the serious
nature of his message at times... Whether itís a one-on-one exchange
or a room of pilots, Vanceís nature elicits everything from a chuckle
to outright laughter. He has flown for Flying Tigers and FedEx, owned a
P-51 for many years, and raced at Reno. He has been forced to bail out
of a burning F4U Corsair at low level, too. He now serves as the
unlimited class president and instructor at the annual Pylon Racing
Seminar held each June in Reno, Nevada.
The need for an air racing school came about after a number of accidents and close calls during the September classic. Some new race pilots had made poor decisions, serious mistakes and used flawed judgment. The worst situations ended up with fatal crashes; the others caused a lot of grief for certain individuals. Insurance for the races may also have played a role.
PRS, affectionately called "New Guy School," is in its fifth year; and it aims to introduce pilots to our quirky little sport in whatever class they choose to race in. Rookie pilots must pass the course in order to race. Competitors must also qualify in a new class or re-qualify if they havenít raced in two years. PRS is there so pilots can learn, make mistakes and get race qualified without the added pressure of the crowd and time constraints.
Class is In
The school is run over the course of four days; although the first day doesnít really count. Most attendees arrive, shoot the breeze, have a cookout and check into the hotel. It is interesting to see the demeanor and personalities as pilots gather for impromptu bs sessions, as experience levels vary greatly. The next morning, a mass briefing is held in the Room of Hard Benches. Pilots in all classes listen to briefs from RARA officials, Crash/Fire/Rescue personnel and various others. This gives pilots a well rounded perception of what the races are and how they operate. Once the general briefing is over, each racing class separates and begins specific briefings for that class.
For the past few years, Vance has filled the roll of instructor and check pilot for the unlimited racers. Alan Preston, Bill "Rhino" Rheinschild, and Brian (right) and Dennis Sanders have also attended to provide an experienced perspective to the new race pilots. Vanceís style is very direct and to the point. He delivers the goods so rookies will stay safe and perform up to standards.
The first class session begins with rules changes and such, then the meat of the course is served. Most ego is left at the door; both RARA and Vance want the students to survive their racing experience and come back in the future.
Vance and the rookies of the unlimited class have been good enough to let me sit in on their briefings over the past several years. PRS is the place to learn, make some mistakes, and ask questions. Better to do it now than at the races. But make no mistake; some of the post flight debriefs can be brutal and quite personal at times. Why? Because you could very easily kill yourself or somebody else if you donít pay very close attention to what you, your airplane, or the other aircraft around you, are doing. Period.
As an instructor, Art Vance shares his wealth of warbird and racing experience with the unlimited pilots. While giving presentations or briefs, his deadpan sense of humor doesnít prevent his serious message from coming across. "Itís really easy to get really dead out here."
Learning From Others
The nature of racing allows instructors to share stories of past mistakes made by others. These stories are not told in such a way to discredit somebody that made a mistake or should have done something different. They are factually told, then an alternate course of action is offered for consideration. "Weíre not throwing rocks at guys that have handled things poorly in the past," Vance said. "Weíre giving information to the new guys and allowing them to consider the events before it happens to them."
There are many to choose from. Massive engine failures by Holm, Tiger, Hisey and others are revisited. Bill Spearsí and Rick Brickertís crashes are also discussed. The tone of voice and discussion shows that these passed racers are missed a lot. The students pay close attention.
For many of the new pilots, merely flying in the race will consume all of their resources. Flying a race is a busy period of time for a pilot; start, taxi out, takeoff, join-up, formation flying, coming down the chute and then racing. Just the flying is a lot to handle. Add the racing element, then throw in a problem or a mayday, and a rookie will really have their hands full.
Vance tells the students, "Itís ok to come off the race course, figure out your problem, and rejoin the race. You are entitled to sort out your problem and return to the race course. It would be socially acceptable and nearly mandatory that you advise the world at large that you are returning to the race course. If you say Ďmayday,í according to the rules, you may not return to the race course."
Vance is plentiful with his advice; turn early for the join-up after takeoff, donít be afraid to use "mayday" if you really have one, get the airplane off the course and figure out your problem... And NEVER turn right at Reno... Even students that are somewhat familiar with the races are drinking from a fire hose. Frequencies, altitudes, speeds and keeping track of the other racers is tough. Throw in a huge crowd, the excitement of the event, and personal pressure to do well, and one can begin to understand the stress imparted on pilots.
Some handle it very well, while others take time to get acclimated in the racing environment. The classroom portion of the seminar introduces new racers to the general area, the course, how each race is run, and what will be expected of them. Rookies, in no uncertain terms, are expected to fly predictably and not cause a problem with faster racers. There will be no hot-dogging by rookies... You will be pulled aside and heavily counseled, if not grounded.
Mayday If You Have To
Vance passes on information and his opinions on the simulated engine-out maneuvers they will practice later during the two flying sessions. He briefs what is expected, how to plan for the failures before they happen, and how to fly the approach to the chosen runway. One item that he spends some time on is how surprising the deceleration is after an engine failure, loss of oil pressure, and a flattened propeller. "'Stunning' doesnít begin to describe your loss of airspeed," he says. "There is no way to mentally prepare yourself for that."
One other subject is discussed within the group. The rookies might think of themselves and be seen as the new guys, but they still have to maintain their pilot-in-command attitude while in the cockpit. Vance relates with a story by saying, "There was one occasion when Neil Anderson blew apart the -3350 on that really ugly Yak... (right) Having just taken off on 32, he turned it around and was coming back and put the gear handle down. Ordinarily, when youíre going to land, thatís a good idea. In that airplane, what would have been a better idea is to put the gear door handle down and open the doors, and then put the gear handle down. Itís a two handle deal," he said.
"In the passion of the moment, he put the gear handle down. One of the gear actually made it through the door, the other gear didnít. By this time, the engine is hammering itís last beats, and the tower says, ĎYouíre gear isnít down - go around!í Sitting here in the calm confines of this office, we can all confidently tell ourselves that we wouldnít go-around; weíre the pilot-in-command! At the same time, all of us have been flying for a fair number of years and weíre a little bit programmed to go around if somebody on the radio says Ďgo-around.í Youíd be amazed whatís in your mind. Just donít let race control buffalo you into something that is wrong. You are, indeed, the pilot-in-command."
Dennis Sanders, sitting on the other side of the table, added another point to the story. Anderson had added power to go-around, and the engine ran for just a few more seconds before it quit. "That added a bunch of energy to the airplane. He ended up landing it much farther down the runway, with more energy, on one wheel. Just short of going off the end of the cliff, he ran it into the desert and ground looped what was left of it. Ripped the fuselage in half and ripped the wing off it... Otherwise, he would have just landed it on one wheel and scraped it up some, said Sanders." (right)
The Real Classroom
"Letís go fly," Vance announced after more than an 90 minutes of class. Each of the students had been briefed that the practice flights would be flown just like a race. Each aircraft would be towed out, started, taxied and flown just like a race during the event. Safety is always paramount; there are no pilots here wearing jeans and t-shirts. Everybody has flight suits, boots, gloves and helmets. Oxygen use is mandatory. No ifs, ands or buts. Some nerves are evident; one student canít seem to get his engine started, and two aircraft pull out next to each other at once. Vance sees all and hears all.
Acting as a pace aircraft (at right in Speedball Alice), Vance leads his gaggle out to the active runway, lines up, and does his run-up. He ensures each race aircraft is ready, then takes off. Each of the rookies takes off, banks over to join up, and follows him to the northwest for some airwork. This is where Vance can get an idea of each personís formation skills. After everybody has joined, he makes some turns and observes. After that, the students have to perform a roll each direction without loss of altitude. This teaches them to recover if wake turbulence flips them upside down while at low level on the course.
Just such an occurrence happened during the 1999 gold race. Bruce Lockwood was in Dago Red, and had fallen behind Brian Sanderís Dreadnought. Going into pylon one, Lockwood center-punched Dreadnoughtís formidable wake turbulence. Dago got thrown knife edge and probably would have gone inverted if not for Lockwoodís instinctive reaction and training. He righted the aircraft without loss of altitude and continued the race to win. This was a perfect example why rolls are required by rookies.
Vance had invited me into the back seat of his Mustang to watch the training flight on Saturday afternoon. By this time, the rookies had flown together a few times and some level of comfort was evident. The guys were settling in and knew what was expected. Watching some of the racers do their rolls was interesting; they arenít aerobatic aircraft per se, and they certainly donít like negative G. Dishing out of a roll or losing too much altitude was considered poor form. "Try it again," Vance said over the radio.
The next portion of the training flight is a stressful time for the pilots. Coming down the chute, each racer is busy keeping formation, turning on race systems, and coming up on the power. Not hitting another airplane is high on the priority list. Vance leads the gaggle down and keeps the power at a reasonable setting so everybody can keep up.
"Iím just showing them the course and letting them get settled down," Vance said over the intercom. "A lot of guys arenít used to flying this low, and with a bunch of other aircraft." I look out the right side of the canopy and see Brian Adams, Mike Brown, Randy Baily and Dennis Sanders off our wing (right). Tom Dwelle is also out here blasting around the course at Warp 9, too.
Passing isnít as easy as one might think, especially if you are running a stock aircraft with equal speed to other stockers. There just isnít a lot of speed difference, so pilot technique becomes a lot more important. Vance varies the power so the students can pass him, and then he repasses so they can experience how it is suppose to be done. "Some of the real racers like Holm or Tiger will pass wherever they can," Vance says. "Itís not suppose to be that way, but when you get super competitive, thatís the way it is. You had better lace up your boots when those guys are around."
After several laps of passing and being passed, the students continue to motor around the pylons and get to know the terrain, the course, and how their aircraft react in the turns. Vance hits his radio transmit button and tells Adams to perform a simulated engine failure. "Race Six is a simulated engine failure," Adams radios. He pitches up off the course, makes a left turn and sets up for runway 14. Vance is watching him closely and manuvering his Mustang to keep an eye on him (right). Adams does well; he aims about a third of the way down the runway, waits on the flaps and gear, and lines up. After a second, the gear comes out of his Mustang and some flap comes down. Vance is satisfied that a successful landing would have occurred. "Ok, good," he says.
On to Reno
At the end of the seminar, most of the rookies have been approved for racing in September. Their heads are full of information, numbers, speeds, and advice. They are happy to be done, excited about the upcoming races, and tired from three straight days of learning and demanding flying. They consider the cardinal rules of racing - never turn right, an emergency will happen to you, and always make the runway. Alan Preston, one time pilot of Dago Red, was fond of saying, "Your airplane is not going to like you at Reno. Youíre going to beat on it, thrash it and throw it around. It will cause you to have an emergency at some point." The rookies at PRS know that it is not "if" an emergency happens, it is "when."
Not everybody has passed the Pylon Racing Seminar. It certainly is not a Ďgimee.í Vance, along with the instructors in the other racing divisions, balances the performance and desire of each rookie with the responsibility of having safe pilots participate at the races. Vance feels responsible not only to the rookies, but to the other race pilots that will be out there come September. It would not be fair for experienced racers to have to keep clear of a new pilot that canít make the cut, and it would not be fair to the rookie in signing him off when he is a hazard to himself as well as others.
For those that pass the seminar, they can now come to Reno in September and expect to participate in the races as long as they get their racer qualified. They arenít expected to be Skip Holms or Tiger Destefaniís their first year out. They are, however, going to be able to be part of our quirky little sport known as air racing. Welcome to the show!
Thanks to Art Vance, Brian and Dennis Sanders, and the Reno Air Race Association with their help and access for this story.
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