Reno Recap: 2022 Stihl National Championship Air Racesby Aaron Haase
The Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) held their annual air racing event at Reno-Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada from September 14th through September 18th, 2022. The variety of high performance, ex-military aircraft which attend each year always adds to the excitement, with the most popular types usually being the piston-engined, former fighter planes of the Unlimited Class. This year, that class featured a mix of Hawker Sea Furies, P-51 Mustangs, and even a Bell P-63 Kingcobra. The Jet Class featured a mixture of ex-military Cold War trainer types, with all of them this year being variants of the Aero-Vodochody L-29 Delfín or L-39 Albatros. The T-6 Class, by definition, features numerous variants of North American Aviation’s legendary WWII trainer. Although the Sport Class typically comprises high-performance civilian aircraft designs, this year proved to be an exception, with Olivier Langeard racing his former Armée de l’air (French Air Force) Socata Epsilon, nicknamed Zebulon.
Unfortunately, thick smoke from regional wildfires severely curtailed much of the flying activities over the first few days at this year’s Reno Air Races. The smoke-laden skies were so dark at times that they resembled an approaching thunderstorm! Visibility obviously became too poor for performers to fly at times, with RARA cancelling several race heats on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
On Thursday, the only aircraft able to race were two pairs of T-6 Texans which took part in one vs. one drag races. Steve Hinton performed an aerobatic routine for the crowd in his recently-restored Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat. His son, Steve Hinton Jr. then took off in Planes of Fame’s P-51D Mustang Wee Willy II, but soon radioed back to report that visibility was unsuitable for the Air Force Heritage Flight to perform; he landed shortly afterwards. Late that afternoon, Mark Peterson arrived in his beautiful Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, but that rounded out the vintage flying on Thursday. The team I worked for, Race Jet #11, was asked if we would like to pull our L-39 Albatros down to the ramp for some photographs alongside the US Air Force F-22 Raptor demo jets – a task in which we happily obliged. Race Jet #11 is owned by Lt Col (Ret’d) Jerry “Jive” Kerby and L.M. “Lunar” Sawyer.
On Friday morning, the Jet Class was able to get a Silver Trophy heat in, with Vicky Benzing flying her beautiful L-39 Albatros (Robin I) to victory. The T-6 Class also managed to fly a couple of their one vs. one drag races following the jet heat. The Unlimited Class then got a heat in for the Silver Trophy competition. Among the racers was John Dowd Jr.’s very rare P-51A Mustang and the Palm Springs Air Museum’s P-63 Kingcobra. A few P-51D Mustangs also took part in the race, including Bardahl Special in an all white retro paint scheme harking back to the earliest days of the Reno Air Races. Sadly the afternoon racing events ended up being cancelled again due to excessive smoke levels. However, there was just enough visibility for the Navy Legacy Flight and the Air Force Heritage Flight to perform. Steve Hinton Sr. flew his Bearcat in formation with a VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” F/A-18F Super Hornet for the U.S. Navy’s effort, while Steve Jr. flew the museum’s P-51D Spam Can/Dolly alongside one of the F-22 Raptor demo birds for the Air Force’s routine. As twilight approached, several vintage military aircraft flew including Saunders Aeronautic’s beautiful TBM-3 Avenger, as well as a few T-6 Texans, a C-47 Skytrain, and a couple of P-51 Mustangs giving rides. Another interesting arrival of note featured an F/A-18F Super Hornet from NAS Fallon which Tom Cruise ‘flew’ in the recent movie Top Gun: Maverick; the fighter still bore the same livery it wore for the film.
Saturday morning started off beautifully, the smoke seeming to have cleared overnight. The T-6 Class Silver Heat opened up the vintage racing for this day, and soon after they landed, I was lucky enough to find myself heading out to Pylon 7 to take pictures of the Unlimited and Jet Class Gold Heats; obviously the weekend’s fastest races. With blue skies and magnificent mountains as a backdrop, there really was no finer place to watch the air races unfurl. The Unlimted Gold Heat included three Hawker Sea Furies, with Joel Swager flying last year’s winner, the R-4360-powered Dreadnaught; Swager ran away with the race. Three P-51 Mustangs also took part in this heat, but the ‘corncob’ Sea Fury proved too much for them. The Jet Class Gold Heat included several L-29s and L-39s; for me, it was one of the best races of the week as it concluded with an incredible photo finish. After that heat, I headed back to the crowd line to watch a Mustang racing duel of yore take place between Bardahl Special and Lady B – both of these Mustangs had taken part in the earliest air racing events at Reno during the mid 1960s. A T-6 Gold Class Heat then took place, with Chris Rushing winning the race in his AT-6B Barons Revenge. A Jet Class Bronze Trophy heat was up next, with Matt Conklin taking the checkered flag in an L-29 nicknamed Sluggo. Sadly, the smoke returned later that afternoon, but not before the Unlimited Class was able to fly a Silver Trophy heat, with Steve Coutches winning in P-51D Bardahl Special. Soon after, Steve Hinton Sr took off in his F8F Bearcat in preparation for the day’s Navy Legacy Flight, but the smoke-thickened skies were now too murky for safe formation flying, so he scrubbed their performance. Visibility did improve enough later in the afternoon for Steve Hinton Jr to fly Wee Willy II in the Air Force Heritage Flight; this display wrapped up the day’s flying.
By Sunday morning, the smoke had finally cleared off, although the skies were still grey with clouds until late afternoon. The T-6 Class opened the day’s racing, with congratulations going to Bill Muszala for his win in SNJ-5 Miss Ellaneous! Mustangs Bardahl Special and Lady B then repeated their classic Reno one vs. one race. A missing man flyover also took place, a poignant tribute to Sherman Smoot, the beloved, long-time Reno Air Racer who tragically lost his life while preparing for this year’s event in his highly modified Yak-11 Czech Mate. The aircraft performing this flyover included Saunders Aeronautic’s TBM-3 Avenger alongside one of their Hawker Sea Furies and Planes of Fame Air Museum’s F4U-1A Corsair and Hinton’s F8F Bearcat. Air racing then continued with the T-6 Class Silver Trophy finale; Gene McNeely capturing the honors. Then it was time for the Jet Class Silver Trophy event, with Alex Eckmann winning in his L-39 Red Thunder. The Unlimited Class Silver Trophy race unfolded next, with John Dowd Jr. winning in his beautiful, highly polished P-51A Mustang Shanty Irish. Chris Rushing then won the T-6 Class Gold Trophy in his AT-6B Barons Revenge.
Sadly tragedy then gripped the Reno Air Races in the Jet Class Gold Trophy race when Aaron Hogue died in the crash of his L-29 Ballista. RARA understandably cancelled the Unlimited Gold Trophy finale which had been due to conclude the racing events that day. Aaron Hogue was a wonderfully generous human being, and his loss is felt keenly in the tight-knit air racing community… we all want to express our deep sympathy to his family and friends.