by NATASHA VITALE
Pilots are spending this week training at the Pylon Racing Seminar at Reno-Stead Airport to prepare for the annual Reno National Championship Air Races, known to aviation aficionados as “the Cadillac of air racing.”
The annual competition runs Sept. 11-15.
Two years after a major crash at the races killed 11 people, the Reno Air Racing Association expects to have record-breaking numbers. About 188,000 people attended the races in 2012, and organizers say they expect to surpass that this year.
And there are more participants in the mandatory seminar this year compared to last: In all, 124 people took the training in 2012; this year’s class numbers about 130, and sign-ups were still open as of 5 p.m. Wednesday. About 80 of the 130 participants are pilots, according to Valerie Miller-Moore, director of marketing for the Reno Air Racing Association.
Breitling, a longtime sponsor of the National Championship Air Races, has stepped up for the event’s 50th year with a $1.2 million commitment.
The event is revered among pilots and aviation enthusiasts.
“It’s the Cadillac of air racing,” said pilot Dennis Buehn, 65, of Fallon. “There are other races that have come and gone, but Reno’s the only steady one.”
The Reno Air Races were marked by tragedy on Sept. 16, 2011, when pilot James K. “Jimmy” Leeward crashed his North American P-51D Mustang. He and 10 people on the ground were killed, and 69 people were injured. It was one of the worst air race accidents in U.S. history.
Buehn has been racing T-6 airplanes in Reno since 1971, and he won gold in the 2010 race. In addition to air racing, he also races stock cars with his wife. He has been coming to the Reno air races since the ’60s as a spectator and to crew for other pilots.
The training seminar was first offered in 1998 to ensure that pilots knew how to race safely. Most airports don’t allow the type of flying that is done in the races, such as flying low to the ground, which means first-time racing pilots need to practice those techniques before race day. Other safety considerations include flying close to other planes, flying too fast and flying in windy conditions. The seminar covers classroom training as well as training on the course and is required for all pilots who want to fly in the air races.
Pilots must pass the courses in order to qualify to race. There are six classes of airplanes that race, and each class has its own requirements for pilots.
“I instruct and evaluate pilots who’ve never raced before,” said Ralph Rina, 71, of Phoenix, who is an instructor for new pilots in the T-6 class. “We make sure they’re qualified; we train them on racing procedures and techniques. At the end of their training, we evaluate them and see if they’re ready to race.”
Rina first took part in the Reno Air Races in 1973 and will have participated 25 times come September. He says that the Reno Air Races are better than other races he’s participated in because they are less hectic and there’s more time on the course.
“It’s one-of-a-kind and the best show in town,” Rina said. “It’s a must-see for every pilot.”