- Fly Control Line in Comfort!

2007 Reno Air Races Report

By Justin Labadie (Tom's son)

First of all, I would like to extend my family's heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the three airmen lost during the week of the Reno Air Races. Although air racing is inherently risky it is still shocking and sad when accidents occur despite the best intentions and safety precautions of all involved. I would also like to point out that technically the first accident on Tuesday was NOT air race related. Rather, the aircraft was taken up after the airport was opened for general aviation and apparently caught fire shortly after takeoff. Out of respect, I will not be posting pictures or video of the accidents or their aftermath.


Update 7/31/08: 2007 Reno Air Race pictures!
Update 9/27/07: The 2007 Unlimited Gold video has been posted! Click here to go to our Media page to view it.


My buddy Mike and I arrived early Thursday morning, ready to soak in the excitement of thousands of horsepower thundering overhead. We each purchased a general admission ticket and also a pit pass for the entire event. I HIGHLY recommend getting the pit pass as it allows one to roam through the pit area between races and get up close and personal with the planes and their crews. Let me also point out that while most of this article will focus on the Unlimited class, I have a lot of respect for the pilots and crews in all racing classes.

Inline Insanity

We hurried past all of the vendor booths and started walking the pit - right in front of us a beautiful P-51D named "Strega" gleamed in the morning sun! The crew was working feverishly on the engine and had the cowling and a number of other panels pulled off. In talking with one of the crew, we were informed that Strega had just received a new highly modified V12 racing engine (Merlin, if I remember correctly) and would be flying in the races later that week. The crew was excited and had high hopes for 2007.

There were as always a large number of P-51s entered in the races. I counted 12 P-51 variants, most the "D" model. Classic aircraft coupled with amazing inline powerplants should make for a great set of races this year, as long as the inline engines hold together. 2006 saw a large number of inline engine failures in the Silver and Gold classes. In fact, one of the P-51 pit areas had a blown P-51 engine case on display with HUGE chunks missing. That had to be like a bomb going off with the high compression and volatile fuels these guys use!

The Giant Killer

Next in line was the little Yak 3 named "Czech Mate". They call this plane the Giant Killer, as it has a smaller airframe and about 1000 cubic inches less engine than the rest of the aircraft in its racing class, yet it has placed well in the Unlimited Gold race series. In fact, in 2006 it placed 3rd overall! We'll see how well it does once the races start this year.

Do That Voo-Doo That You Do

Next we have a P-51D called "Voodoo". Sitting in the pit, Voodoo's trademark purple paint and sleek lines are complemented by a large assortment of women's undergarments hung strategically throughout the booth. Again, several panels were removed from the aircraft and the crew was fine tuning things in preparation for racing.

Precious Metal

Several weeks before the Reno Air Races, I read a news article and saw a Youtube video apparently showing the racing P-51D "Precious Metal" crashing at Oshkosh in July 2007. I was saddened by the news in any event, as the pilot was killed. I was absolutely stunned to walk through the pits at Reno and suddenly be staring right at "Precious Metal", the plane I had seen crash only weeks before! There is a logical explanation: according to the Precious Metal crew, the P-51 shown crashing and unfortunately killing its pilot at Oshkosh was an airplane constructed for the "Thunder Over Reno" movie from original North American plans held by the Smithsonian. So, basically the stunt stand in aircraft for the real "Precious Metal" was the one that crashed. Let me also mention that Precious Metal features a distinctive contra-rotating propeller assembly that gives it a unique look and sound, setting it apart from the other P-51s. It is a really special airplane.

So Many Sea Furies...

At this point the morning qualifying events begin, so Mike and I begin walking randomly through the pits so it's difficult to describe things in order. At least that is the excuse I will use for my lack of memory ;) Anyway, it seems like someone had a sale on Hawker Sea Furies, as there are TEN of them in the lineup! That's only two less than the ubiquitous P-51s! In 2006, they swept the Unlimited class, with highly modified Wright R-3350 radial engines retrofitted like those on the Douglas Skyraiders and B-29s. "September Fury" was the 2006 Unlimited Gold champion with a blistering speed of 481+, followed by "Dreadnought" (another Sea Fury) at 453+. In fact, Sea Furies placed at #'s 1,2,4,5,6, and 7 in the 2006 Gold. They're everywhere! It will be interesting to see if the "Sea Fury Phenomenon" continues for 2007.

Some Really Unique Aircraft

I remember the first time in 2006 that I actually got to see a Vought Super Corsair at Reno - what an awesome experience, both on static display and while racing in the Unlimited Silver class. Now there were only 14 or so of these made, and according to the placard this is one of only 4 flying, which we will get to see later on! The Super Corsair has a wild red and white color scheme which is very fitting for a racing airplane. In 2006 during the Unlimited Silver the Corsair had a problem with one of the spark plugs, which took a while to diagnose as according to the race announcer there are 56 of them! Hopefully this year the engine will hold out and we will get to see what the Corsair can do.

The big twin engine F7F Tigercat "Big Bossman" is on the line and ready to breathe some fire. It's amazing that this is one of only six airworthy Tigercats left today, and we will get to see it in it's full glory roaring down the course.

P-38 "Glacier Girl"

WOW! A real P-38 is sitting in the pits. And not just any P-38 - this is the famed "Glacier Girl". She was part of the legendary Lost Squadron, which in 1942 encountered extreme weather and was left on the eastern coast of Greenland for later recovery. Fast forward 50 years to 1992, when Roy Shoffner and a dedicated crew of 40 people burrowed through 268 feet of ice to bring one of the P-38s up through the ice, piece by piece. After 10 years of extensive restoration work, in 2002 the "Glacier Girl" took to the skies once again. It was a pleasant surprise to see this aircraft up close. Maybe we will get to see it fly in a Heritage Flight?

Air Biscuit

The FM-2 Wildcat called "Air Biscuit" is SOOOOOO COOOOOL in person. Before 2006, I had only seen these planes in pictures and read stories. But to see such a legendary machine in person is truly a treat. I can't wait to watch her race, even though in 2006 she came in dead last and was lapped by several racers. But it really doesn't matter. The Wildcat is such a sweet airplane, what with that giant hole in the fuselage for the wheels to retract into and the unique sound of its comparatively low powered radial engine as it chugs around the race course. Definitely unique and definitely cool!


There are three really cool stock looking Grumman F8F Bearcats this year, in addition to the not-at-all stock "Rare Bear". One of these is flown by Howard Pardue, whose team has high hopes of competing in the Unlimited Silver class against the ever present Sea Furies. It will be interesting to see how this turns out. I am partial to the Bearcat - there is just something really cool about it. In fact, many pilots have said that given a choice between it and other aircraft of the era, they would choose the Bearcat due to its robust nature and high performance characteristics.

The Rare Bear

Okay, I'll just go ahead and admit it. I LOVE THE RARE BEAR. To me she is the Queen of Cool, the Sultan(ess?) of Speed, the Pinnacle of Power. She holds a number of single piston engine records including the FAI 3km record at 528+ mph and the time-to-climb record at just over 90 seconds. She is crazy modified and as a result there are two possibilities: either she goes like lightning or something blows up. As my buddy and I approach the lair of this awesome Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat, my heart sinks when I realize that there is no Bear in the pit. There is however a booth with a couple of crew members selling "Rare Bear" paraphernelia, so as a pretext to find out what is going on with the Bear, I buy a baseball cap and a DVD. The answer is not good. "I think the Bear needs to race today to qualify, but we'll see what happens". DANG IT. DOUBLE DANG IT. I also find out that Rare Bear has changed owners between 2006 and 2007. Will this affect her performance? Will the crew be able to tame this beast? Of course my buddy Mike immediately starts talking smack, telling me to wait until the Sea Furies race to see some "real airplanes". So, downhearted, I make my way to the stands to watch some of the other classes duke it out.

The Jet Crash

Before I go into this, suffice it to say that seeing an aircraft crash in person is nothing like watching it on Youtube. It is horrific and in this case made me physically sick. With respect to those involved I will attempt only a brief account of what happened during the jet race. Basically, the jets came screaming over the crowd to begin the race. They were moving extremely quickly and were all traveling close to the same speed. Speeding down the back stretch (the Valley of Speed), they made the turn back towards the crowd. It was at this point that it was obvious that most of the jets were in very close proximity to one another. They continued toward the crowd and prepared to make the pylon turn to fly from left to right in front of the stands. As the group of jets reached the pylon, they were on knife edge and pulling hard to make the turn. Unfortunately they were grouped too closely together. One of the L-39s caught the jetwash of another and basically lost power and control and slammed into the ground and exploded. It was a final and devastating end for a skilled airman. To many spectators, the whole event appeared to happen in slow motion. Racing was suspended for a number of hours while the accident was investigated and the wreckage cleaned up. My sincere condolences to all involved as well as their loved ones.

The rest of Thursday is somewhat of a blur. You can really tell that after the crash, people's hearts weren't really into racing or even the aerobatic displays in between races.


Mike and I arrived a bit later than we would have like at 9:30am on Friday, ready to take more pictures and video. As we were walking in, we noticed a bit of a somber mood prevailed, which I attributed to the accident on Thursday. Unfortunately, we quickly learned that early Friday morning during the Sport class race, two planes had collided in mid-air and the fate of the pilots was unknown. Soon we learned that one of the aircraft had struck another from behind, then plunged into the ground, killing the pilot. Again, I want to convey my heartfelt thoughts of comfort to the pilots and their families. The pilot of the aircraft that had been hit struggled to land on the back runway, finally stalling it on approach due to damaged control surfaces. Due to his great skill, he was able to escape with fairly minor injuries. This second racing accident understandably cast a pall over the entire event and eventually leads to cancellation of the rest of the races for Friday, with no promise of resumption on Saturday. And once again, no Rare Bear in the pits. This is NOT GOOD.


On Saturday we arrive a bit earler. The races are back on and we decide first to check out the pits to see who is still in the running. Of course I make a beeline to Rare Bear's pit and again find No Bear. But then I walk over to the gate in front of the flight line and can't believe my eyes to see the Rare Bear in all her glory! Well, almost all her glory. The crew has the cowling and a bunch of panels ripped off and are feverishly working on something in the vicinity of the engine. Although admittedly, the Bear's engine is so huge that practically everything is in its vicinity. As other classes continue racing, they get her buttoned back up. Soon, the crew attempts to start the Bear's engine. As they do, flames begin shooting out of the top of the cowl. Now, this may be OK or normal, but as the video I took of it shows, it was pretty intense when it happened and led me to believe that there might be a significant problem. In any event, the pilot continues cranking and basically puts out the fire with the prop wash, sending a huge volume of oil and smoke into the air. Then the engine is shut down again, the cowl removed, and the entire crew swarms like ants, adjusting this, removing that, and generally making it look like Something Really Bad has happened.

In the meantime, the Bronze qualifying heat takes and place, then the Silver qualifiers begin their race. About this time, and in the middle of the Silver heat, the crew puts the cowl back on Rare Bear, and John Penney taxis her out and takes off right in the middle of the race, the engine sounding rough. The Silver heat concludes with the Bear out of sight, eventually landing about 15 minutes later.

The time comes for the final Gold qualifying heat before the big day and surprisingly, Rare Bear lines up with all of the other aircraft. It seems that this is "go" time for the Bear - either she qualifies in a decent position or we wait until 2008 for her next chance. As usual, the planes taxi out, take off, and form up on the far left side of the stands. September Fury sounds awesome on takeoff, with that crisp hollowed out thunderous exhaust note common to the modified Wright R-3350. Dreadnought, another Sea Fury, is sounding very similar. Surprisingly, the Bear sounds somewhat tame on takeoff compared to years past. Maybe the rebuilt engine is not as powerful? Or is John Penney saving the engine?

The formation circles back behind the stands and comes thundering in over our right shoulders onto the course. Right away, September Fury pulls out in front and stays there. Rare Bear is briefly in second place but is quickly passed by Dreadnought. And there it stays throughout the qualifier, while the real race is for fourth position between Spirit of Texas and Riff Raff. Strega, the P-51D with a brand new race engine and a real chance to challenge the Sea Furies, unfortunately Maydays out of the race. Sadly, it turns out later that it burned a piston. September Fury continues to pull away from the field, winning the race at 470 with about a 15 second lead over Dreadnought (452). Rare Bear rounds out the top 3 at an average speed of 446, which seems pretty low for the Bear. Of course I am just happy to see Rare Bear running at all, but there is a question in my mind as to whether she will see her former glory. My buddy Mike of course seizes the opportunity to gloat over the "superiority" of the Sea Furies. "We'll see what happens tomorrow", I tell him. He replies, "Yeah, the reason they call it Rare Bear is because it rarely flies!". Grumble grumble.


Unlimited Bronze

The Unlimited Bronze class racers line up and taxi out to the staging area. Among these racers are Howard Pardue in a pristine and powerful Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat, Brent Hisey and his P-51D Mustang "Miss America", Robert Odegaard's Super Corsair, and Thomas Camp in the FM-2 Wildcat "Air Biscuit" (YAY!). One by one, the racers rumble up and off the runway into the beautiful blue sky (this weather is WONDERFUL). The pace jet starts its smoke and the racers quickly converge on its location. All except for one, that is. Air Biscuit is much slower than the rest of the racers and as a result has to vector WAY over to the left and behind the crowd so that it can eventually join formation. In a few minutes, the race is on!

The F8F-1 Bearcat piloted by Howard Pardue quickly moves to first position and begins to distance itself from the rest of the field. The real race is shaping up for second place, between Miss America (P-51D) and the Super Corsair. The aircraft thunder past the crowd, jockeying for position and airspeed, although the Bearcat basically runs away with it. Sparky (P-51D) and Speedball Alice (P-51D) fight for fourth position, while waaaaaay in the back, little Air Biscuit plugs along with a valiant effort. The Bearcat and several of the others eventually lap the Wildcat. At the end, the winners are the Bearcat (Howard Pardue, 389+), Miss America (P-51D, Brent Hisey, 359+), and the Super Corsair (Robert Odegaard, 351+). And of course even though Air Biscuit comes in last, the pilot Thomas Camp makes an extraordinary effort, even being fined for low flying at the speed of 280!

Unlimited Silver

Okay, this one I got (mostly) on video and will be posting it up here soon. But to give you an idea of the excitement that occurred during this race, the talk leading up to the finals was filled with questions like "will the Sea Furies dominate again this year?". I am happy to report that there was some great racing in store during the Silver final. Unfortunately, the F7F Tigercat "Big Bossman" pulled out of the race before start due to a faulty $5 switch. The rest of the planes made their way up and into formation. Immediately upon race start, the Sea Furies "September Pops" and "Sea Fury" battled it out for the lead, with two Bearcats (Blue Bear and Howard Pardue's Bearcat) in hot pursuit. At certain points in the race these four planes seemed fairly evenly matched, but in the end, "Sea Hawk" (Sea Fury, 401+) pulled ahead and won the race by 9+ seconds. Second place went to "September Pops" (Sea Fury, 394+), followed by "Blue Bear" (Bearcat, 388+) and then Howard Pardue's Bearcat (387+). This race would have been even more exciting with the Tigercat in the mix, but even so it was a spectacle to behold.

Unlimited Gold

Watch the video!

2007 Reno Unlimited Gold (broadband)

At this point in time it seemed that Sea Furies were indeed dominating and winning the day. Would 2007 prove to be a repeat of 2006? Would the Rare Bear come out of hibernation and claw her way to the top, or at least a respectable finish?

The crowd was giddy with anticipation, fueled by the theatrics of the race announcers introducing the parade of planes on the taxiway. These were the big guns, the Big Kahunas, the fastest piston engine airplanes in the world. And they were going to go full bore until they won, or something broke. As the racers started their engines and the big props began to send dust and debris flying, the announcers called out the names of the pilots and their aircraft, all of which were Sea Furies unless otherwise noted: 2006 Champion Michael Brown in September Fury! Matt Jackson in Dreadnought! John Penney in Rare Bear (F8F-2 Bearcat)!

At this point the crowd roared. The Bear was back! But could she hold her own against these highly modified Sea Furies?

The announcer continued: CJ Stevens in Argonaut! Bob Button in Voodoo (P-51D)! Sherman Smoot in Czech Mate (Yak 3)! Stewart Dawson in Spirit of Texas! Robert "Hoot" Gibson in Riff Raff! Nelson Ezell in Fury!

The crowd's cheers were quickly overpowered by the thunderous rumble of these thoroughbred race machines as they taxied to the staging area. One by one they leapt off of the tarmac and into the marbled sky, quickly joining formation and getting ready to push beyond the limits of their design. The crowd grew quiet, waiting for the racers to scream back over the right side of the stands into the "chute" to start the race. Within a minute or so, we are rewarded with the sweet sound of high compression and superchargers wailing overhead as the racers firewall their engines and streak down toward the first pylon

This is when things get absolutely amazing.

First of all, let me say that Mike Brown is a great pilot and September Fury is an awesome machine. So it is no surprise that September Fury leads the field going into the first lap. It is also no surprise that Matt Jackson in Dreadnought is following him closely in second place. But then something happens that makes this race, and indeed the entire 2007 event, insanely cool and special. John Penney punches Rare Bear's throttle and literally rockets around Dreadnought at the first corner. It is simply stunning to watch on video. The crowd is going absolutely berzerk. John Penney is bearing down (pun intended) on September Fury, but the question is: can he catch Mike Brown? September Fury is incredibly fast and Mike Brown flies the course like he is on rails. And will the Rare Bear's engine hold together?

As the leaders turn to pass in front of the crowd, they appear to exchange slight leads several times. The battle continues as Rare Bear and September Fury scream by. At the right rear pylon, which is the entrance to the Valley of Speed, the Bear makes her move, swinging wide and high and then descending to trade altitude for speed. She shoots past September Fury and then begins to pull away. Rounding the corner again in front, John activates the sprayer bar and a plume of dark smoke shoots out of the Bear's exhaust. The crowd gasps - can Rare Bear hold it together for the rest of the race?

The Bear continues to distance itself from September Fury. Obviously John and crew were holding the Bear back during the qualifying runs and have now pulled out all the stops. One by one, John completes another lap. The white flag is up - one more lap to go! The crowd goes crazy in anticipation of the winner, IF she can hold together for one more lap. It is at this point that John Penney in September Fury declares a Mayday and pulls up and out of the race. This leaves Rare Bear well out in front roaring toward the checkered flag - can she do it?

John masterfully turns into the final corner and screams over the finish line and up into the heavens. UNBELIEVABLE! THE BEAR IS BACK! At this point I am absolutely ecstatic. Even my buddy Mike has a smile on his face and has to admit that I was right about the Bear. When she runs, SHE RUNS. And even though September Fury and Voodoo ended up pulling out of the race, they made it back to earth safely. All is well.

Rare Bear Emergency Landing

It is at this moment that the announcer breaks the festive mood: "John Penney in Rare Bear has just declared a mayday.". The announcer explains that the throttle is apparently stuck wide open. This is extremely bad, especially since these race planes hold just enough fuel for the race. For the Bear it is doubly bad, as its wings are clipped 4.5 feet to allow it go faster. As a result it glides like a brick. We all go silent and begin scanning above for the Bear. We see the pace jet and the Bear high overhead, spiraling up to gain as much altitude as possible to provide landing options.

The announcer tells us that John reports he has only 30 gallons of fuel left. At wide open throttle, that is in the tens of seconds of fuel. The pace jet pulls away as John dumps the remaining fuel, nitrous, water, etc. to lighten the aircraft. Then John adjusts the mixture to shut down the engine. As I zoom in on the Bear as it begins its final approach, it is clear that John is attempting a deadstick landing. Fortunately he is a master pilot and has years of experience flying the Bear. We all tense up as he approaches the far runway much hotter than normal. Amazingly, and due to John's extreme expertise, he brings the Bear in for a perfect deadstick landing! RELIEF! Awesome! A triumphant end to an event that was marred by tragedy.

In an ironic twist, the second place aircraft Dreadnought was disqualified for cutting a pylon. Due to this and the fact that September Fury pulled out, the little Giant Killer (Yak 3) "Czech Mate" received the second place trophy this year! And this despite have 1000 cubic inches LESS than the nearest competitor. Who says there is no replacement for displacement?

I can't wait until next year!!!!!!!!

- Justin