Trials, Tribulations and Telemetry
Insight of a F1 Race Team's Road to Reno.
 
Story and Photos by Michael Luvara - WarbirdAeroPress.com
Additional Photography by Chris Luvara and Neal Nurmi

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When one thinks about Reno, the first thing that comes to mind is the thoroughbreds; the highly modified Mustangs. Or the Bearcat - all making those undistinguishable yet musical sounds as they race by on Sunday during the Gold race. However, there are a lot of other happenings at Reno that go unnoticed during the entire week. Some may simply think of them as a 'nobody' in the sport of air racing, but the reality is that they are a big part of Reno. They sound like a swarm of bees racing around the pylons when they compete early in the morning. For others, they are the heart and soul of racing… We’re talking about the Formula 1 class.

Based around a minimum set of dimensions and certain motor, the Formula 1 class is as competitive as any other if not more so. Back in their hangars (more commonly garages), pilots and crews wrench on their planes during the off-season in any attempt to gain that precious extra mile per hour. What’s this extra pressure line tube doing in the wing? Steel step to get into the plane? Those items are extra weight, and they have to go! The aircraft are small with little room for any conveniences. Most opt for a piece of foam as a seat cushion. The avionics are limited too - minimum instrumentation is installed, and the planes taken apart and trailered to the races.

 

Getting In the Door - Aerophile Racing

 

As somebody that has developed an airborne telemetry system, I had the opportunity to work alongside a F1 team this year. The telemetry system was installed while the aircraft was being prepared for Reno, and I worked with them through race week. One might think F1 racing and its associated operations are easy, as their presence at Reno is often overshadowed by louder, faster and more visible classes. Even though the F1's are far more simple than a P-51, their competing at Reno is no easy task. It takes determination, time and financial backing.

 

Ray Debs and Curtis Weinman make up the Aerophile Racing Team; they co-own two F1 aircraft that are based at Campbell, CA. The first one is a green Cassutt IIIM named Plane Mantis. The two bought the racer and struggled with it at the 2002 races; finishing last in the bronze event. The second aircraft, named Carbon Slipper, sits in a garage under construction since 2001. It will benefit from what is learned with the current racer.

 

Both men are your average Silicon Valley guys, and have full-time jobs during the day. At night and on weekends, they play with their toys. Ray is a computer engineer for Micron Inc., and holds commercial glider and aircraft instrument ratings. He also flies his Bonanza regularly and gives glider rides at Hollister airport from time to time. Curtis is an electrician for an electrical contractor. He earned his wings several years ago and is logging hours on a regular basis. When it came time to decide who raced first, Debs' current flight experience put him in the pilot’s seat. Curtis serves as the crew chief.

 

In 2001, team Aerophile began construction of a racing Cassutt based on a framed fuselage that was purchased from another party. It had passed through several owners before the two bought it; and they thought they could get it ready for the 2002 races. When time fell short for completing the plane in time for 2002, they elected to purchase a racer that was already flying. Getting some experience on the course was the goal. The aircraft they bought became Plane Mantis, so aptly named because of the green paint. It was a rough week for the two racers; a engine problem on takeoff forced an abort. They were awarded last place as a result.

 

Back to the Shop

 

After that disappointment, it was back to the workshop to prepare their new F1 for 2003. But the best racing intentions were put on the back burner when Debs got married and moved into a new house. Time ran out for the new racers, so work was carried out to rectify the problems with Plane Mantis and race it again. Several items of concern were fuel delivery, the carburetor intake and the engine. When the two completed the work, the list of items included a new instrument panel, tachometer, tail wheel, induction system, a smaller fuel tank, and general aerodynamic cleanup of the airframe. The end result was a lighter aircraft and a better running engine. As expected, there were performance improvements.

 

Ray and Curtis had always said they could use some help building their plane and preparing it for the races, so I offered my help as time allowed. Time didn’t allow a lot last year, but my contribution this year was something not normally associated with a F1 racer. In July of 2003, I met up with team Aerophile to talk about installing my telemetry system in their racer. This would allow them to monitor flight parameters during testing and racing in real-time. Having developed a system for UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and serious Radio Control flyers, I figured this light and compact system would work well in the real thing. We agreed on a plan, and began the installation process. As I came to later find out, this was probably the first telemetry system installed in a F1 at Reno. The whole experience really let me see the inside happenings of racing on a more personable level.

 

Over the next several weeks, I came to truly appreciate the work that goes into preparing for Reno. I have attended Reno every year since 1986, but never participated on a team. This was a new experience and very rewarding. Moreover, I got a firsthand look at the sheer determination to make 2003 a success for team Aerophile. The coming weeks seemed like hours and time was running out. Mid-August was here and the aircraft was just coming together; it hadn’t been run or flown since September of 2002. As the last safety wire was twisted in place on the prop bolts, the spinner was fitted and the work was signed off. We were finally done and ready to test-run.

 

Waking up the Neighbors

 

It was 8:45pm, the sun had just set, and all had come together on the plane. After a month of continuous work, the new tachometer was in place on the slick carbon-fiber panel, the fuel tank was filled, and everything ready to go. Does the new custom digital tachometer work? Is everything connected right? Well, the only answer is to fire the motor up! We wheeled the plane out of the backyard and onto the driveway.

 

Yes... Driveway.

 

This particular driveway is smack in the middle of a close-knit housing community in Silicon Valley. With a flashlight in hand, Ray hopped in the cockpit and shut the canopy. I found myself holding onto the tail. Curtis hand propped the racer, and a few flicks later, the short-stacked little monster was breathing. The tach was working, and so was the neighbor’s front porch light. The light pulsed just like that of the engine’s prop rotation. On-off-on-off-on.... I guess they didn’t like the "quiet" sound of a straight exhaust Lycoming. In fact, the sound mimicked a Volkswagen Bug, slightly louder. In the glow of the flashlight at 9:00 pm, the tach indicated 3600 rpm and my ears were ringing. A minute later, the throttle came back to idle and Ray monitored the important temperatures before shutting things down. All indications were good, so Ray shout the engine down.

 

We discussed the tachometer readings. They were bouncing, and potential RF noise from the magnetos affecting its operation. Meanwhile, a Crown Victoria came to a stop in front of the driveway. Yep, it was the police... Out stepped the gun-holding officer. "So, what are you guys up to tonight?," the officer asked.

"Just running a motor. We’ve got a race coming up," Curtis replied.

"All done?"

"Yep," Curtis said.

"Ok then. The way the call came in, I thought there was an airliner or jet running in someone’s front yard! You mean you actually fit in that airplane?," he asked.

"Yep," Curtis said.

"Well, you gentlemen have a good night," laughed the cop.

"You too," we said in unison. The police officer seemed to chuckle as he got back into his cruiser. I guess they get some interesting calls in the line of duty… Well... Now that Plane Mantis runs, does it still fly?

 

Testing

 

I missed their first test session at Hollister airport due to other commitments. Word came in that they managed one good flight, but were plagued by some engine problems. After inspection, it was found that the spark plugs were fouled. Subsequent testing showed that the plugs would foul after one flight. Each time after a flight, the $40 plugs would have to be cleaned. This was part of the problem from last year, too. We quickly traced the problem to oil. We found oil was dripping out of the intake and into the cylinders after a flight. Not good. Somehow oil was seeping into the cylinders via the valve guides. New cylinders would eventually fix the problem. The two air racers spent an entire night changing out the cylinders prior to further flight testing.

 

Further testing was performed at Hollister airport as Reno approached. The new cylinders were performing much better, but the plugs were still fouling a bit. At this point, I was present to run the telemetry and gather data.

 

This particular system was designed for testing UAV’s and larger Radio Control models. Obviously, the telemetry range does not need to be very far for these applications - typically less than a mile. I had not tested the system farther than that, but my paper calculations showed it was good for 7 miles under line of sight conditions. Ray got into the plane and Curtis propped it. A thumbs up was given by Ray and we got into the support vehicle and began following Ray down the taxiway.

Most of the F1 aircraft do not have radios due to excessive RF noise and the extremely loud cockpit environment. Weight is also a consideration. Curtis and Ray have worked out hand signals for communication and a pre-described flight plan. Curtis mans the radio on the ground, calling out his intentions, altitude, and rough position to the local tower. As it turned out, the telemetry was quite useful for this purpose. When we lost sight of the racer during the test flight, we still had altitude and airspeed on the telemetry to give a good idea of how things were going (e.g. speeding up, slowing down, climbing/diving).

 

 

 

For the test flight, Ray was cleared for takeoff and he added power. The telemetry data came in and was looking good. While Curtis kept in communication with the tower and local traffic, I poured over the telemetry screen, ecstatic about how well the system was performing. Even though the racer was a distant spec in the sky five miles from us, the data link was still solid! The airspeed gauge on the telemetry’s instrument panel showed 205mph flat and level at 2000ft above ground level. Some discussion between Curtis and I ensued about the readings and what was known. When Ray landed, we could compare notes. So far, the telemetry link was solid, and I was happy for that part.

 

When Ray landed, he and Curtis debriefed the fight. Things went pretty well by all accounts. While Curtis attended to removing the cowl, I glanced at the cockpit G force gauge for peak readings. The gauge read within a tenth of a G to what the telemetry indicated. It should be noted that the telemetry system is a separate unit, being non-intrusive to their installed avionics. This means that there are essentially two sets of sensors on the plane measuring the same thing. However, the all-up weight of the telemetry unit cabling and batteries is less than 3 lbs, so it doesn’t contribute heavily to the overall weight. Ray and I conversed about what his indicated cockpit readings and what was recorded with the telemetry. Turns out both were pretty close, with the biggest discrepancy on airspeed at around 5 mph.

 

Now that their new motor was running well, it was time to start preparing for Reno. Part of the preparations for Reno this year included a Japanese film crew whom would be following their day-to-day events. This all started before Reno as they wanted to film team Aerophile working on their plane at home! So, the plane was once again taken apart, put in the trailer, and taken back to Curtis’s garage. The film crew came, videoed some work done on the plane, and then proceeded to follow them back to Hollister for their next test session. For this flight, a small lipstick camera was placed at the top of the vertical fin and it captured a stunning view of flight. The plane was again taken apart, and put in the trailer for the ride home. One more visit from the film crew would catch the trailer leaving their house for the races on Thursday, the 4th of September. They needed to set their pit area up, go through the rigorous tech inspection, and of course, put the airplane together again before qualification started on Monday. I wouldn’t meet up with team Aerophile until my family made the annual trek up to the races a few days later.

 

I arrived at Reno by 10:00am and headed directly to team Aerophile’s pit area. Both Curtis and Ray had smiles on their faces. Monday morning, they were the first to qualify their aircraft and did so at just over 198 mph. This was an increase in nearly 25mph over their 2002 qualification. The off-season work had paid off, helping them secure a top spot in the Bronze class. The motor was running great too. The only problem? The new engine tachometer had quit working.

 

No further qualifying was necessary for team Aerophile and Plane Manits. However, Ray elected to take the aircraft up on Wednesday and take advantage of the open race course. Because the pylons are only up twice a year, this is a good opportunity to practice. After the session, Ray and Curtis began installing a new tachometer, kindly loaned from another race team. At 8:00 that night (while Scotty G was off partying at the Warlock pit), we wheeled the plane out and tested the tachometer. Nothing... It later turned out to be a simple adjustment on the optical pickup.

 

Official racing began today... I arrived at 7:30 am so I wouldn’t miss the chance to acquire telemetry data on the plane during the 8:00am heat. Staking out a spot on the ramp free of fuel trucks and obstructions, I pulled the laptop out of my bag, attached the receiver and booted up the machine. Because formula teams are housed in a hangar and don’t have trailers on the flightline, this was the best spot with a clear view of the course for data acquisition. Some spectators and RARA ramp security gave interesting looks as to what I was doing with a laptop and receiver antenna in the pits. I have to admit that it did look quite odd.

Nevertheless, I kept my eyes on the laptop screen and watched Ray finish first across the line in the Bronze heat race, having taken off in the pole position and never looked back. This meant a bump-up to the Silver heat race on Friday.

 

 

 

The early-morning Silver race turned out to be so-so for team Aerophile. While watching the telemetry data on the laptop, indicated speeds were slightly lower than that of the previous day. The motor just did not seem to be "there" when it flew by. Ray landed Plane Mantis quickly after the race and immediately started chatting with Curtis upon exiting the cockpit.

 

Concern lay with the engine. Thinking about it, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary on the telemetry during their Friday flight, other than slow race speeds. Ray said the engine sounded amiss during the last portion of his final lap. A recheck of the recorded telemetry data showed engine cylinder head and oil temps normal with no apparent anomolies.

The focus turned to one of the rear cylinders. Some metal was found in the oil screens and a clicking noise could be heard when the motor was turned back and forth. Several motor gurus took turns giving their diagnosis.

 

 

 

 

With a screwdriver held to the engine case and his ear, one of the guys quickly diagnosed that the connecting rod bearing on that cylinder was suspect. After some discussion, we decided to pull then engine from any further flying. Was the weekend over? Did they have spare parts in the trailer to build a good motor? The generosity of the other competitors soon shined. Two offers for spare race-motors were made, along with parts to use in repairing their current motor. For now, it was off with the bad motor and on with the new.

 

Not wanting to be in the way of the five people working on the plane, I went out to watch the races and returned several hours later. The damaged engine sat on the floor and a shiny red engine case hung from a motor stand. Loaned from Outrageous Air Racing (Pilot Scott Crandlemire), the engine was a freshly overhauled, full tilt race motor. This motor had more oomph than team Aerophile’s broken engine. In fact, it would require a different propeller, which was borrowed from another generous team - Budde Racing.

Word arrived that their finish in the Silver race was fast enough to keep them in the Silver class bracketing, despite the last place finish on Friday’s heat. This meant that they didn’t have till fly until Sunday - they had all Saturday to complete the engine and get it running properly. Now there was adequate time to get things right.

 

One slight problem...

 

The engine standoffs were too long and the bolts too short for this setup, so Curtis went off to find a hangar with the proper tools. One hangar owner graciously loaned him access to his lathe. Curtis returned with cut-down standoffs. The motor soon was bolted in place and work focused back on getting the rest of the tubes, wires and linkages hooked up. Curtis, Jacob, and some of the crew members stayed up till 3 am until the motor was completed.

 

Saturday the 13th

 

8:30am - The IF1 tech inspectors came by to check the cam profile before the engine is deemed race legal and allowed to compete. Once inspection was finished, the valve covers