It’s certainly not every day that you check your emails to find one waiting with an invite to take part in a new formula one air racing series, but back in January that’s exactly what happened. I was initially quite sceptical as, just the year before, I had been contacted by Martin Luton of UK’s Formula Air Racing Association (FARA) who was looking to try to put a race together, but that had come to nought when insurance for such an event in the UK could not be placed. This time Martin was back in touch on behalf of Jeff Zaltman, CEO of newly-formed AirRace1. He was looking to recruit pilots with formula one aircraft for a new event to be held in Spain. Jeff already had a strong track record of making events happen, having previously masterminded and run the AeroGP series, and it sounded like he was already quite far down the line with the planning process. By the end of February all the challenges were indeed resolved and I’d decided it was too much of an opportunity to miss, so I took the plunge.
The Air Race 1 series was to be based on the long-running formula one class and would see up to eight aircraft racing wing tip to wing tip around an oval-shaped course marked out by six pylons, flying as low as 50ft and reaching speeds well in excess of 250mph. The formula one rules restrict the aircraft to such things as using a normally-aspirated 100hp O-200 engine, a minimum wing area of 66sq.ft and minimum aircraft weight of 500lb, a fixed-pitch propeller and fixed undercarriage.
Now I had some serious work to do, as my Cassutt Racer, G-BOMB, was a pretty stock machine and needed some serious upgrades if I wanted to be competitive. The best person to undertake this task was Richard Grace, who, apart from being an exceptionally talented display pilot, has built, owned and test flown several Cassutts over the last few years. A plan was quickly devised consisting mainly of weight reduction by replacing the existing cowls and panels with carbon fibre versions, and ensuring a much closer fit to reduce drag. Richard also managed to source some rather clever wing tips designed by Reno race pilot Jay Jones who claimed they dramatically reduced the speed lost in the turns over the standard Cassutt ‘slab’ wing. This would be a great interim solution given the lack of time to build and certify a full race wing. Next on my list was a race propeller and, after doing a lot of research, it seemed that our engine should be safe to run around 3,500rpm without any ill effects, given it had already been fully balanced during its last zero time overhaul. Hopefully the result would be to increase the output power to nearer 125hp, although that is still some way off the power generated by the fastest Reno aircraft turning 4,300rpm. Within five minutes of speaking to Rupert Wasey, of Hercules Propellers, I was sold on the enthusiasm and the pride he takes in his products, and ordered a custom-designed propeller with the promise of a very quick turnaround time. With the aircraft improvements well in hand, I next had to decide how to get it down to Spain. The US aircraft were all being shipped over and would be reassembled on site, and the sensible option for me would be to trailer BOMB down and do the same. However, the idea of flying it down and back, and having a good old fashioned aviation adventure, wouldn't leave my mind and after studying the charts it looked perfectly feasible, if challenging, in such a small unstable aircraft. The Cassutt will cover ground pretty quickly with a fast cruise of 160-180mph, depending on how much fuel you want to burn, but the endurance is pretty limited at just over two hours. Eventually I settled on a route that would take me from Bentwaters to Le Harve to clear Customs, then on to La Rochelle, San Sebastian just over the Spanish border, and then Lleida, possibly achievable in one day if everything went well.
During the last 15 minutes or so I’d noticed some unusual vibrations and when we took the cowls off in Lleida we were rather alarmed to find a large crack on the spinner backplate. Rodrigo, a Spanish aircraft engineer for BAE and race mechanic for the N A Rush team, kindly took it to a vintage aircraft restoration specialist he knew of in Reus to have an exact replacement manufactured.
To be on the safe side, Bob Winsper and Steve Alexander (both veterans of the UK Air Racing scene) were on hand and Steve kindly offered to have the spinner backplate from his Cassutt project shipped out to us from the UK as quickly as possible. With a solution in hand I ran the existing cruise prop without a spinner in the meantime to allow me to get some practice on the course to ready myself for my IF1 qualification flight. This consisted of demonstrating a normal take-off while maintaining the runway centreline, followed by a climb into the overhead to demonstrate a roll in each direction without any deviation from course, and then a half roll to inverted followed by rolling back out the same way to simulate an upset from hitting another aircraft's wake. Next I had to enter the course and fly a number of laps at race speed and a height of around 50-100ft, demonstrating this could be done safely avoiding any ballooning in turns.
Once the officials are happy with this, they will call for a simulated engine failure, usually at the worst point possible, and the technique is to zoom climb as high as you can get on to the downwind – in my case about 800ft – before carrying out a glide approach and landing. Finally a simulated engine failure on take off with the tail raised needs to be demonstrated to ensure you can keep the aircraft straight, given that during a race you could have aircraft on either side of you on the grid.
I’m pleased to report I passed on the Wednesday without a hitch and was issued my IF1 race licence. On Thursday our replacement backplate
arrived and was fitted; it was time to try out our new race propeller from Hercules. The first session consisted of practising formation on another aircraft around the course, rising in the turns so you remain visible when passing. I was pleased to be doing this with fellow Brit racer Trevor Jarvis in his Taylor Titch. It was then time to practise passing and to see what the new prop could do. I was impressed to see that Hercules had got it bang on the money with the figures we’d asked for and it resulted in a 15mph gain over our cruise propeller.
The second session of the day was to post our qualifying lap times and I would be out on the course with Jay Jones flying the much faster Quadnickel. Just as I got started with my first fast lap, Jay had called a mayday so I pulled off the course to give him some room, because of the low cloud base, before being called back to finish my qualifying laps. It turned out that Jay had suffered a minor electrical cockpit fire but managed to put it out with his glove and got the aircraft back on the ground safely.
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