This article originally appeared on FLYINGmag.com. Ongoing coverage from FLYING Media Group sites during the Reno Air Races will continue this weekend.
When someone asks for a basic rundown of what the annual National Championship Air Races are, I start with the facts. It is a weeklong event in Reno, Sunday to Sunday, during which pilots race specialized aircraft around courses in the Nevada desert marked with pylons.
While essentially accurate, this description fails in my opinion because it makes the event sound regimented, predictable, and perhaps even a bit boring, which it is not.
An analogy that works better, especially for nonaviation folks, is an old-fashioned soap opera with a generous dash of the action adventure genre. A cast of characters including pilots, mechanics, officials, sponsors, and spouses mixes with an unbelievable collection of meticulously cultivated horsepower. The result is a unique chorus of engines, power tools, and raised voices.
Workers open hatches and crawl deep inside fuselages to work on hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Their voices echo as they shout for tools. Colleagues run back and forth between the airplane and support trailer, searching for this wrench or that screwdriver. A spool of safety wire occasionally gets loose and rolls across the ramp.
One thing that makes the Reno races special is that the machines rarely manage to overshadow the people, though they try. Earlier this week, a Hawker Sea Fury named Dreadnought, a big, beautiful Unlimited racer that has competed here for decades, suffered an engine failure during a qualifying run at well over 400 mph (I have never heard “knots” mentioned in reference to Reno—a nod to its motorsports history).
Talk about drama. Pilot Joel Swager raised the nose, quickly trading airspeed for altitude as Dreadnought’s huge Pratt & Whitney 4360 radial uttered awful, explosive sounds before going silent. Pilots who race at Reno train for this type of…