Wrenching at Reno

The challenges of air racer maintenance are unique to most aircraft mechanics


Reno. Nineteenth-century boom town. Gambling mecca. The biggest little city in the world. And host city for the only pylon air racing in the world. Every September, at Stead Field, just over a hundred of the world’s most “Type-A” pilots and some of the best crews in motorsports gather to go faster than anyone else. With six classes and a week of qualifying and racing, the courses are vacated only briefly —and in the interval, top airshow performers keep everyone looking skyward.

Since virtually all the racers are flying under some sort of experimental clearance, innovation is key. Without taking anything away from the determination and skill of the pilots, he who innovates best has the best chance of winning. Rules constrain some innovation; but the rules apply to everyone in the class, so each team tries to tweak its airplane to the top of the chart.

The challenges of wrenching at Reno exceed the imagination of most who haven’t been in combat support. Not only is routine maintenance of unique machines difficult and often unorthodox, it must be performed with tight precision and often with no guidelines, as it is not uncommon to fabricate and test entirely new ideas during race week.

Although many of the T-6s and biplanes fly regularly, many others, in Sport, Formula One, Jet, and Unlimited classes fly only rarely; some are in one piece, literally, only a few weeks in the year. This doubles the load on mechanics, some of whom may never have seen the airplane in this year’s configuration. (And sometimes, the modifications don’t fit, or don’t work!)

Mistakes are extremely rare, given the mix of wrench-turners and proficiency levels; by week’s end, things are running smoothly. But of course, by then it’s time to get cleaned up for the banquet.

Not your ordinary aircraft maintenance job

The challenges of Reno are unique to aircraft mechanics. The closest parallel for a mechanic would be to top-echelon auto racing, but few mechanics cross from one arena to another. Further, in auto racing, there is a lot more track time, and there are multiple races in any series. In Reno racing, there’s only … Reno.

Slight misunderstandings, occurring from unfamiliarity, fatigue, or misinterpretation, result in expensive problems. Early one morning, I encountered an Unlimited flyer, who was upset with himself. He had asked the crew to “check” the spark plugs the night before, and they did, taking nearly the whole night to do it; they, however, didn’t “check” the plugs; they replaced them. No big deal, usually, but this was on a 4,360-inch, 28-cylinder P&W, and a set of plugs cost upward of $2,000. (He finished second in Gold.)

Other mistakes are dangerous. One normal midweek afternoon, we all heard and felt a loud explosion. Looking for smoke or some other clue was fruitless, but the cause of the noise was soon obvious: a Mustang sat very low on its gear, its back broken. New rules were in place that year, and someone (no one ever would say who) overfilled the Mustang’s air tank. By a lot. No one was hurt, but the rules changed again, after that.

For mechanics who are used to working alone and at their own pace, Reno is a different world. Everyone on a team helps wherever possible. Sometimes, curious and helpful spectators are called on to assist in, say, a smaller-class engine change, or to go find parts or a tool. “Crew management” is as important as raw knowledge; those volunteers are a force multiplier, but also, as one crew chief said, “must be watched.”

Sometimes, the press of time can overwhelm judgment, skill, and the airman’s last defense, luck. Improper design, bad assumptions (like “I thought you did that”) have led to some mechanical and human disasters.

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