Flying in the Pacific Northwest

The Reno Air Races

A spectacular setting for spectacular performances

The Reno Air races form part of aviation's collective conciousness, but I for one had not expected the sheer spectacle of the event itself. For the best part of 30 years, ancient fighter planes have been brought to this desert ampitheatre to race headlong around pylons, risking engines, aircraft and human lives in the pursuit of speed.

I am no race fan, but the sight of so many piston (and jet) warbirds is breathtaking.

This is the line up for Sunday's Gold Race, the culmination of a week's racing and countless hours of preparation...
Gold race line-up

Mustangs and Hawker Sea Furies wait in the searing Nevada Sun.

Hawker Sea Fury

To a British visitor, it's fascinating to see the name of Rolls-Royce or Hawker on almost every entrant in this race. The Mustangs use heavily modified Merlin engines, while the Sea Furies, long since parted from their Bristol Centaurus engines in favour of Wright radials, are still the ultimate post-war piston engine fighter that they were meant to be.

Soon, the competitors are taxying out for all-important run-ups and an orderly sequential departure. Long gone are the days of formation take-offs. In this safety concious age, one jet leads the gaggle of ancient fighters into the air and down the "chute", or entry to the racetrack, while another follows closely behind to film any infringements of aeronautical regulations.

They are Off! The famous radio call "Gentleman, you have a race" signals that all is well with the starting line up and the competitors burst onto the field from behind the grandstand.

Still, these aircraft are racing flat out at low level and powers their designers could only have dreamt of.

The highly modified Mustang Vodoo screams past the crown at more than 450 mph, following in the wake of leader Dago Red .

Eight laps at 450 mph around a 9 mile course doesn't take long, but to those pilots it must seem to be a lifetime. Today the winds are light, but there are plenty of thermals out there, not to mention the prop wash that must lie in huge sworls out across the desert.

Aircraft claw their way around the pylon (centre right) marking the long straight in front of the grandstands. They must not 'cut' inside the pylon, or stray toward the crowd.

Each lap finishes at the home pylon, right in front of the crowd. They must not fly lower than the 'R' in Reno, painted on the pylon. Trading height for speed, some are tempted...

So this is a 'low level circuit'. As they scream by, these highly tuen engines emit a piercing howl, more like model aeroplanes than the real thing.

Before I came here, I had no idea that the whole course would be visible form one vantage point. In this clear air, the miles around the track seem nothing. Only the tiny specs of the far off race planes give this astonishing panorama a sense of perspective ... and as they race nearer, already completing the first lap, they are suddenly upon us again.

This year's winner is Dago Red , hurtling around the track at 477 mph, faster than any previous race. (Sorry about the blurred picture - now I know what 'sport mode' in the camcorder menu is for!). And right behind him is fellow Mustang Vodoo , leading by a large margin the pack of Hawker Sea Furies.

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