“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 leave 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!