Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a race!

rontruck2“We can’t see the home pylon flags!” was the universal gripe of race pilots at the afternoon FAA safety meetings, notwithstanding the reality that the flags at home pylon, like the ceremonial checkered flag at Indy, really figure little in the conduct of the races. But – all that changed one sweltering afternoon three decades ago when a home pylon timer with an extremely aerodynamic fuselage stripped down to a signal-red halter-top.

            The crackle on the pilots’ VHF radios was universal: “Check out the timers’ table,” one would tell another following him. And they did. Better yet, we ground-pounders could hear them. Through a negotiation best left unchronicled I secured the by-then-famous garment and took my place at the mandatory pilots’ meeting, a red flag half the size of a ping-pong table in one hand and a bare seven-foot flagpole in the other, the empty halter-top stapled to it. “Which of these two fabrics is easier for you gentlemen to see at 250 knots?” I queried the assembled group, and knowing their gooses were cooked the beefs about my “near-invisible” flags fell from the fare of matters to beef about.

            The early days of racing were austere – our communications were a major beneficiary of the electronic age starting in the mid-1960s. Believe it if you will, but for several years we had no walkie-talkies – a hand-held portable radio? Imagine that. Radio giant Motorola, from their Sacramento office, later provided four of them, assigned like gold to the key players in conducting the race. Four walkie-talkies – four – heavy and bulky, barely able to go a full race day without a recharge. I’d guess the number in use today exceeds a hundred, all the size of a pack of smokes. Off-duty Nevada Bell linemen in the early years did yeoman service laying miles of cable between the pylons and race HQ – days of prep-then-removal, the task now supplanted by portable radio sets. The first VHF radio – plane-to-ground – had an interesting story behind it. ‘Twas a small green metal box with an antenna and a microphone on a coiled cord; my job each year was to borrow it from the fledgling DRI on the university campus for the races, and it’s all we had. The transceiver was actually owned by Harrah’s boat and plane division, who acquired it to use in the Harrah Ford Tri-Motor airplane. That plane was restored to its 1930s condition, and William Fisk Harrah would not allow a post-war radio to be installed in the dash panel – (not authentic!) Thus, Harrah’s crew acquired the little green box for use when the plane was barnstorming around the nation, and loaned it to DRI in the interim periods, who then loaned it to us. The FAA finally said enough is enough; get a modern radio set in that Tri-Motor that we can hear in our towers. (And while you’re at it, put some nav lights on the Tri-Motor!)

            The unseen group of heroes at the air races are the pylon crews, who leaveair-race-home-pylon-crew civilization at 6 ayem each morning for seven days and exist on what they can make do with several miles out in the desert, entreated to 10 hours of boredom interrupted occasionally by 12 minutes of mayhem while their pylon’s race is in progress, assuring that each plane goes on the outside of the pylon.

            There’s a core group of these folks, and the majority of them out in the boondocks today have it down to a science, for some are original-race volunteers and have learned what to pack and how to live off the desert all day. They’re famous for their barbecues, and they host mini-parties. The kindly group at Outer-4 (Unlimiteds) who come down from Alaska en-masse each year will invite the group from Middle-5 (T-6s) for a sitting of (Grumman) Bearcat Stew, or Inner-5s (biplanes and midgets) visit Outer 7 for their famous (Bob) Hoover Tennessee Waltz chicken. Tables are set, usually with tablecloths and decent silverware; one for a while actually had silver and crystal. Alcoholic beverages stay behind the “fence” – the spectator area – for later. Most pylons have Honda generators feeding TV sets for football games, with a little friendly wagering going on among the pylon crews.

            Unnerving to many race pilots as they passed low overhead was a roughly-oval 40-foot piece of Astroturf, placed on a surface lovingly leveled by one pylon crew, with a regulation golf cup and a flag pin placed in the cup, to host the first Inner-3 Invitational, attended by Outer-3 and 4, and Middle 2 and 4. And you think we were just wasting our time out there?  Naahh.

            The volunteers – who come for all over the nation, and now some the children of the original race volunteers – are the backbone of the Air Races. (Dale Tucker, the flagman since I retired in 1994, first came to the home pylon about 1972 wrapped inside a checkered flag, to conceal him through the FAA gate security. Now he’s six-foot-five.) Try following Bob Williamson’s pit crew – most of who have been together for 35 years – towing the Unlimited racers in and out of the pits. These guys go home bone tired every night, then come back and do it all over again for seven days straight. Or – follow the footsteps of any ground-pounder in the flight line or pylon crews – the dust, desert sun, noise and smoke from the demonstration planes, (usually just lightweight oil sprayed into the plane engine’s exhaust stack) – goes home with them, most in their ears, after every race day.

            The Volunteer Corps’ efforts make our Reno Air Races enduring – they have a lot of fun, but the easy jobs are all taken. They were out there this morning when this paper hit your driveway, and will still be there while you’re barbecuing tonight. Give ‘em a big hand – they earn it. Have a good week, and here now, our column* finale added eighteen years ago to the the day: God bless America!

© RGJ

 

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An air racing story not yet told…

FearlessNoTextThe poor little guy was bawling his eyes out. What the heck………..?

I wheeled my Jeep toward him, a lone little figure about my son’s age, standing with a well-worn paper sack in his hands, ill-clothed and needing a haircut from a real barber, a lad truly matching one’s perception of an urchin. I stopped next to him and killed the engine.MissAmericaP51

“What’s up, Pardner?”

Through sobs and sniffles, I was able to put together the cause of the lad’s grief. It would seem that he received for Christmas, a model airplane kit for the P-51 Mustang that had raced in Reno every year since the races began ten years ago (I’m pegging this event as being in 1976). In the paper sack was the cover of the model’s cardboard box and the assembly instruction sheet.

He had started last Christmas, now nine months ago, to save his pennies and go toInstruction sheet the Air Races the following September, and have Howie Keefe, the owner and pilot of Miss America, autograph the kit’s lid and the instruction sheet. But, upon trudging from his family’s home to Stead and presenting his meager funds at the ticket table for the air race pits – where the airplanes are tied down – he was informed that he was too young to go into the pit area – an FAA regulation and a RevellP51good, valid one.

He was crushed – nine months of hopes and a dream were instantaneously brought to an end. He walked, alone, back along the fence line separating him from the pits, and broke into tears. His life was pretty bleak to begin with; this visit was his beacon since Christmas, and it was just unceremoniously extinguished. I’ve never seen a kid – or a human – that upset.

Let’s take a few paragraphs and fill in a cast of characters. Howie Keefe owned and flew the P-51 named Miss America, race number One-One. It was totally stock – no clipped wingtips, prop changes nor tail mods – and therefore not terribly competitive at Reno. But it had an easily identifiable and unique color scheme, which rivaled be best of Raymond Leowy, the dean of industrial designers who designed Air Force One. The plane got the attention of Revell Plastics, who paid owner Keefe not a small amount of coin to offer the plane as a plastic model about a foot long. The plane was a beauty, and well known by all.

OK, that said, the owner/pilot was a man named Howie Keefe. I Howie Keefetipped my hat to him as a former WWII Navy pilot with a zillion hours PIC and the respect of all with whom he flew or raced in air races around the country. He was immensely respected, in fact got a call from the NTSB to join the team of investigators of the crash at Stead that killed 11 souls and pilot Jimmy Leeward, who I knew and liked very much.

Yours truly was aboard due to my friendship, away from and prior to air racing, with the likes of Fred Davis, George Vucanovich, Stan Brown, Roy Powers, Jerry Duty and a few others who would form the crux of Reno air racing in its infancy. And my name and often photograph appeared for the next 31 years in 31 air race programs, as “Home Pylon Flagman” and later with “Finish Judge” following. I was in.

I looked at my watch. I had an hour-and-a-half until I needed to be at my post at Home Pylon. Plenty of time until the earliest race. I made a command decision. “Hop in,” I said to the urchin, nodding toward the Jeep’s right, co-pilot seat. He did.

Then I broke a couple, if not more rules – the FAA’s about underage people being beyond the “line” – the fence separating competition from spectators, and the Air Race’s, against bringing unticketed people into the pit. I cruised up to the gate and the look on my visage probably adequately conveyed that the Jeep and all it carried were coming in – leave it alone.

JeepersWe drove through the pits. I noticed Jeremy (which by the way was the kid’s name) entranced with the whole vista. I found an extra Air Race Operations hat and offered it to him.

Soon, Pay Dirt! In a little shade-shelter very near Miss America, was a tall, elegant figure wearing a crisp red, white and blue flight suit. I stopped and said to Jeremy, come with me.

I was cheery to Keefe and his friends: “Hi Howie; I brought a little friend of mine to say hello; he’s got some stuff for you to sign!” Keefe looked at me askance, at Jeremy, at the race official’s insignia on my hat, then said hi. Jeremy pulled the kit’s cover and the instruction sheet out, together with a heavy marking pen he just happened to have in the bag. And believe it or don’t, but Keefe asked Jeremy how to spell his name and signed both articles.

Jeremy’s nine-month quest had come true! But wait, it gets better:

“Howie,” I said, “May I show Jeremy your office in the Mustang?”

Keefe, as I expected he might, said, well why don’t I take him myself?  Jeremy, as one might expect didn’t need a second invitation. They both clambered up the wing – I, by now the ex officio photographer, followed,

Not tall enough to sit on his butt in the cockpit, he scrunched on his knees while Keefe pointed out the “stuff” inside – the throttle, flaps, rudders, joystick, gear, radio, trim knobs. I dutifully clicked shots of Jeremy, Howie, the cockpit, the crowd. My favorite was one with Jeremy and Howie, both with a smile you could see a mile, looking at each other and playing with some control on the panel. A bonding moment, indeed.

Time was fleeting. I corralled Jeremy and thanked Keefe profusely. And he actually thanked me for bringing them together. Jeremy and I returned to the Jeep.

I had already broken a couple no-no’s that as an official I should have been busted for, but on the way out to the ramp, I decided that once your heels are off the ground, it doesn’t matter how high they hang you. I steered toward my duty at Home Pylon. Tower cleared me on my handy-talkie to cross the main runway, and Jeremy was put to work at Home.  I sensed that the FAA overseer looked the other way.

Jeremy helped us raise Old Glory on cue, as eight Nevada Air Guard RF-4Cs passed over loud and proud just as the flag reached the top of the pole at the end of the Anthem.. He saw the Blue Angels, (the Thunderbirds?), from the best seat in the house. He saw air races. Some of my firemen buddies took him down to a crash truck. He learned how to cook hamburgers on a grill, the only skill really a requisite for working at Home Pylon. He helped us lower the flag and make a crisp tricorner fold, to fly another day.

Jeremy went to the air races. I took him home to a shabby trailer in Black Springs, to where 35 years before I drove a school bus. My first trip back. Yikes.

He was dead-ass tired – noise, excitement, smoke, seeing Howie – he’d had a day. I told him I’d see him in a couple weeks (I was shooting Kodachrome II back then with a Canon A-1; a bit different than pointing and shooting a digital today!). Roy Powers helped me get 8-by-10 copies of a dozen of the best pictures.

I went back to the trailer with the pictures in a fortnight. He was still on Cloud Nine. A Saturday, I took him to lunch. I wasn’t sure he was getting square meals.

I never saw him again. I sent some cards and letters, with return postage envelopes with my address. Nada. I went to his family’s home – they left, no forwarding address.

I’d like to end this with some Mitch Albom-feel good conclusion, but can’t. Howie Keefe, at 92, banged life’s throttle for the final time in the midsummer of 2013, pulled the stick back and climbed up, up, the long delirious burning blue over Florida where never lark nor ever eagle flew, and touched the face of God. His passing was an immense loss to the air racing and aviation community.

Jeremy? Dunno. He said during the brief tenure of our association that he’d like to join the Navy when he was old enough and work around airplanes. I’d like to think he won his Wings of Gold and is now the wing-king of an F/A-18 Hornet  squadron flying off the Ronald Reagan.

But I doubt it….

I’m just happy to have brought him that day at Stead. I’ve written about Air Racing ad nauseam, or did a few years ago. But Jeremy’s story stayed within me. They’ll be back tearing up the skies over Stead this week. And for reasons unknown, I thought I’d put one last air race tale out.

I’d give anything to get that kid in the Jeep once more….

© Breckenridge 2019

Excerpt of Airman’s Prayer credit to John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “High Flight” 1940

Air Race Home Pylon Crew

Home Pylon Crew, 1984: from left, my younger son Brent; Dale Tucker, now the home pylon flagman with Mickey on his t-shirt; next a fugitive from Reno 911 in his shorts; Dale’s parents Polly and Ed Tucker, (chief timers); chief judge Fred Hallett, the father of Reno Air Race timing and statistics. The latter three have passed away, Dale’s now the head flagman

 

 

Up Ship!

BalloonRace“Up Ship” – the launch command of the ground crew of a lighter-than-air balloon, time-honored from the days of Jules Verne as the aeronauts drop a pennant with a braided rope to sample the wind.  The modern Goodyear blimps continue that tradition, dropping a line with the American flag from their tails.  We’ll hear it a lot at this coming weekend as the colorful envelopes fill and open, then rise over Rancho San Rafael.

            The early balloon races in Reno started with less-auspicious beginnings as an event to fill the early hours of the Reno Air Races, offering spectators a little diversion while the racers were prepping for the main event.  They drew a lot of attention – the propane burners slowly filling the gasbags, that gradually blossomed open and disappeared with their wicker baskets and champagne-swilling aeronauts into the distance in a sort of hare-and-hound race, mostly for fun.  The envelopes were less colorful yet more traditional in shape – the logo gasbag shapes, starting with Mr. Peanut and a champagne bottle setting the pace for those.  On that first windless morning they didn’t go far, and posed a hazard to the later air racers by blocking course safety escape routes and cluttering up the course with ground support trucks.  I’ve tried to pinpoint the year from old air race programs with little luck, but I’d guess this all started about 1973, reader help appreciated.

            The next year they were back, in greater numbers and a little more organization, with a few VIP passengers and some sponsored balloons.  And problems similar to the year before with the congestion.  But the event was catching on and few enjoyed them more than the volunteer workers at the air races – the balloons a pleasant diversion from the noisy race planes.  And their pilots.

            I’m shaky on the year now, but believe it was the third year at Stead that the air race trustees, and I detect the fine hand of Roy Powers in this stunt – “We’ll have a Reno Air Race Zip Code, with a commemorative postmark on one-ounce-max letters, put a shoebox full in each balloon, and put these races on the map!”  The U.S. Postal Service went along with that, and official airmail lifted off with each aeronaut.

            Unlike the past years, the wind was freaky at launch time, coming from the east, west, north, and south and maybe straight down.  Hot air balloons with U.S. Mail aboard drifted from hell to breakfast and the post office minions went postal, their mail, their charge, their duty through rain, sleet, dark of night and Washoe Zephyrs, spread from O’Brien Middle School’s parking lot to the Black Rock Desert.  Red, white and blue right-hand-drive mail trucks drove all over the racecourse.  Well, not really, but from the squawk on our walkie-talkies that wouldn’t have surprised us.

            The event matured, from its early beginnings as a schedule-filler for the air races to a stand-alone weekend, and what a hand the early organizers are due for turning it into one of our valley’s major annual shows.  And, for proving that the near-silent rustle of a balloon cleaving the air with the occasional whoosh of the burner, can hold its own with the popularity of Hot August Night’s big-block Chevys, the air race’s V-12 Packard Merlins and Street Vibrations’ Twin-V Harleys.  Up ship, aeronauts; we’re glad to see you back again.

            And, for the trivia that one can only find in this paper on Saturday mornings, the U.S.-based Goodyear blimps have been traditionally named for racing yachts that have successfully defended the America’s Cup, so decreed the late Frank Seiberling, Goodyear’s 19th century founder, a yachtsman himself, now retired.  (Get it?)  And, we all know that just as Bill Harrah went to the four corners of the Nevada to get low auto license plate numbers for his fleet, the Goodyear big wheels garnered the lowest tail numbers in American aviation, from N1A through November Eleven Alpha.

           

© Karl Breckenridge  2006