Since the beginning of aviation, the goal has been (until recently) to fly higher, farther, and faster. Flying farther (on less fuel) is still a main goal, but since the retirement of Concorde a few years ago, we are flying lower and slower. The sound barrier is still a barrier when it comes to commercial travel, and while the military goes faster and higher, most of us will never exceed 600 miles per hour.
There is one place where civilians still gather to celebrate speed and that is the annual Reno Air Races. No where else can you hear mighty radial and liquid-cooled engines being run at the red line for extended periods. You may not know that air racing is an old sport which is responsible for many of the aviation breakthroughs we have today. After all, Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 nonstop flight from New York to Paris was part of a race—with the Orteig Prize of $25,000 (in depression era money) going to the first nonstop between those two points.
In 1934, the MacRobertson Air Race was run between England and Australia, and a crowd of 60,000 spectators was in London for the race’s beginning. A specially built racing plane from Geoffrey deHavilland won the race, but a Douglas DC-2 belonging to KLM Airlines finished second, and the DC-2 operated a regular airline schedule. Another airliner, a Boeing-247D finished third. The Schneider Trophy in Europe helped give rise to one of the most important (and beautiful!) Allied fighter planes of the war, the Supermarine Spitfire. Back in the US, the Cleveland National Air Races saw such pilots as Jimmy Doolittle, Wiley Post, and Roscoe Turner (with his pet lion). As a kid, I used to sit enthralled while my best friend’s father would tell us stories about attending the Cleveland events and such exotic aircraft as the Gee Bee racer. After the war, the races resumed through the 1949 race when a P-51 racer crashed into a house. From 1950 to 1963, there were no races, and in 1964, the event resumed in its current home, Reno. Air racing also resumed in Europe with the Red Bull Air Races.
In Reno, the unlimited class consists of World War II and Korean War piston-powered fighter airplanes like the P-51 Mustangs and Hawker SeaFuries. Some are highly modified with extra streamlining installed, and others look similar to the military versions. These growling, screaming monsters reach speeds of 400 miles per hour around the eight-mile laps, but some racers have topped 500 miles an hour, and all this is accomplished a few feet off the ground.
The Cleveland and Reno races are where aviation’s elite comes to watch and fly, and our own Founder and Chairman Emeritus, Herb Kelleher, received an honor last evening. Herb was named “Man of the Year,” and if there was ever a horsepower junkie, it is Herb. A perfect honor!