High Desert Hangar Stories: Gentlemen you have a race

By Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
Those of us that make the pilgrimage to Stead Nevada every year to the Reno Air Races know those words very well. When Steve Hinton in his T-33 pace plane says those famous words the horsepower in the air calls out to the spectators that its business time and the best pilots in the word of Air Racing let it all hang out and hope to be the first across the finish line with a fully functional Air Racer. The unlimited class in the last holdout of Air Racing in America at Reno is the crowd favorite as the P-51 Mustangs, Bearcats and Sea furies reach the speeds that NASCAR can only dream about all the while skimming the desert at about fifty feet down the valley of speed wing tip to wing tip. It’s something that needs to be seen to believe and the fans that make the trip each year will tell you that you need to see and hear it in person to understand the attraction.

Reno, the last survivor of a sport that in the post war years of World War Two could be seen in venues across America with the pilots that flew them in combat. As the years went by the torch was passed to new generations of thrill seekers and the baby boomers took over the cockpits of Dads passion who did it not so much for the very little money you could win but for the trill and excitement of sitting behind those V-12 or radial engines and besting the other guy that had just as much swagger as all the pilots in this world of incredible speeds and danger.

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But for those of you old enough to remember we here in the Antelope Valley never needed to travel very far to get that “fix” of sound, smell and sight of these magnificent machines skimming across the desert chasing each other and the Jack Rabbits through the giggle weeds. In the 1960’s and 1970’s air racing was alive and well in Lancaster and Mojave and the people came by the thousands to see some of the greatest racing of all times. Famous planes with names like the Red Barron, Miss America, Cloud Dancer, Snoopy and a very famous American Jet Bearcat that became Rare Bear. The Pilots like Howie Keefe, Steve Hinton, Bob Love, Clay lacy, Gary Levits, Frank Sanders, Darrell Greenameyer and Lyle Shelton would put the whip to the airframes and give the spectators the thrill of a life time watching them put their aviation skills on display for all the spectators to see . The sounds of these events would resonate all across the high desert region for days and was some of the best fan entertainment ever presented to the Aerospace Valley with guests in attendance from all over the United States flying in just to view the excitement.

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Besides the Air Racing the in-between entertainment was just as spectacular with greats like Bob Hoover in the P-51 Old Yeller, F-86 and his Shrike Commander. Test pilots like Tony LeVier and Fish Salmon from Lockheed would perform acts of daring along with the likes of the AT-6 demonstration teams and so many more it’s hard to list them all. Another part of the attraction was the amazing amount of celebrities that would be in attendance from aviation greats like Jimmy Doolittle to Hollywood a list actors and personalities. Every year it wasn’t the local beauty queens that just wanted to be Miss Air Race it was the starlets from Hollywood that were on stage smooching for the cameras with the winners!

But all good things must come to an end and the sights and sounds of Merlin’s, Allison’s and Pratt and Whitney’s fell silent on our desert landscape as the cost and insurance not to mention the manpower and hours invested were just too much to overcome. My collection of memorabilia from those days will never match the experience of being there and I feel a bit sad for those that never had the chance to work up a good sun burn and a stiff neck all the while looking forward to the next opportunity to do it all over again.

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Will we ever see anything like this in the Antelope valley again? Probably not but we can always dream, right? I mean where you could go today where you cared less about your girlfriend it was all about the planes. Your girlfriend was more interested in the pilots then you, and at the end you went home with two completely different loves! The good thing was in did motivate us guys to learn to fly if not for the sake of flying but to put that sparkle in the eye of our girlfriends who grew tired of our constant world of all things airplanes ! Of course there are those Ladies that went to the air races and showed us guys up by becoming the pro pilots! But that’s another story!

So for now we remember our Air Racing legacy here in the High Desert and press on to the future. Jet engines were not always the music to our ears hear the Aerospace Valley, the time when big pistons and propellers shook our souls and deserts and was just as sweet!

Until next time, Bob out …

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