A Walk Down Reno’s Flight Line
When it comes to speed, not all planes are created equal. Since the very first Reno Air Races, competing aircraft have been separated into different classes based on their speed and performance. That first event in 1964 featured three classes: Biplanes like the Pitts Special, Formula 1 race planes that must adhere to identical performance standards, and Unlimited: classic WWII era warbirds where anything goes when it comes to modifying the planes for extra speed. Over the ensuing years, new plane types have been added to the schedule, and as of 2021, the National Championship Air Races now consists of six classes of pylon racers and one non-pylon drag racing event. In this article, we’ll introduce you to each one.
Some people like speed and raw power while others prefer finesse and precision. If you belong to the second group, then the Biplane class might very well become your favorite. Though not the fastest planes around the pylons, it is almost universally accepted by every Reno pilot that the Pitts Specials, Mong MS1s, and Smith Miniplanes of the Biplane class are the most challenging racers to fly. But with great challenge comes great reward! Those who attain mastery of these difficult machines will feel an immense sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
At the National Championship Air Races, the Biplane class competes on the 3.18 mile course, the shortest of Reno’s three pylon courses. Unique among Reno’s racers, the Biplanes also begin their competition from a fully stopped position on the runway, taking off in three rows with placement determined by the results of pre-race qualification heats.
If ever someone was born to be a racer based solely on their name, then surely that would be Biplane pilot Sam Swift of Nashville, Tennessee. An airline pilot who earns his living on the flight deck of Boeing 757s and 767s, Swift made his debut at the National Championship Air Races in 2017 flying his Pitts Special “Smokin’ Hot”, a plane he boastfully told us is named for his wife. That’s only fitting, as it was her who first got Sam interested in the sport of air racing. She had already been a fan for many years when she brought Sam to his first Reno event in 2000, and he was instantly hooked. When an opportunity came along a few years ago to purchase a Pitts Special and transition from spectator to racer, Sam needed no convincing. Swift’s #3 plane “Smokin’ Hot” is one of the 10 Pitts Specials featured in Microsoft Flight Simulator’s Reno Air Racing expansion.
Reno’s Formula 1 class has gained a reputation as the best place for aspiring speed demons to get started in the sport of air racing thanks to a lower cost to own and operate these planes compared to any of the other classes. By rule, every Formula 1 plane must be equipped with a 100 horsepower Continental O-200 engine, the same low-cost powerplant that drives the venerable Cessna 150. Despite this limitation, Reno’s Formula 1 planes like the Cassutt Special can attain speeds over 250 mph (217 knots) — twice as fast as a C150 — thanks to their sleek, aerodynamic lines and extreme light weight. Like the Biplanes, the Formula 1 class also competes on the short 3.18 mile course.
Pilot Justin Meaders of “Limitless” is living proof of just how accessible this class can be. At age 22, a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. A competitor with a never-give-up attitude by nature, Justin learned to fly Formula 1 planes that are specially modified with hand rudder controls instead of the standard foot pedals. These modifications allow Justin to not only compete at an even level against able-bodied pilots at Reno, but to excel. As the only paraplegic race pilot in the world, Justin has amassed two Gold race wins and one second place finish over the last three years flying in Reno’s Formula 1 class.
Ask any aviation fan who’s been lucky enough to hear one in person, and they’ll tell you the unmistakable rumble of a Merlin engine is one of the most beautiful sounds you will ever hear. The Unlimited class races at Reno provide spectators with the rare opportunity to hear more Merlins simultaneously speeding overhead than just about anywhere else in the world.
A mainstay at the National Championship Air Races since the inaugural 1964 event, the Unlimited class allows teams to make extensive modifications to their planes. Only two rules govern this no-holds-barred pursuit of speed and power: Unlimited racers must be 1) powered by piston engines and 2) driven by propellers. Beyond that, anything goes. Though the odd one-off custom plane has appeared every now and then in Unlimited races over the years, most entrants have historically been classic warbirds from the 1940s. The Hawker Sea Fury, Grumman F8F Bearcat, and fan-favorite North American P-51 Mustang have traditionally been the three most common types. The Unlimited class features races on Reno’s 6.37 mile circuit, the longest of the three pylon courses.
Some of the most decorated planes in the Unlimited class are the Bearcat “Rare Bear”, the Sea Fury “Dreadnought” (current three-time reigning Gold champion), and a trio of Mustangs: “Dago Red” (winner of five consecutive Gold races in the late 1990s and early 2000s), “Voodoo”, and “Strega”. The latter two dominated the class for a decade, with every Unlimited Gold race from 2008 to 2017 being won by either Voodoo or Strega. The 2017 race was particularly dramatic, with Strega crossing the finish line less than half a second ahead of her rival Voodoo. Although that 2017 race would be the final showdown between these two storied Mustangs before their retirement from air racing, you can fly meticulously re-created digital versions of both Voodoo and Strega (plus eight other authentic P-51s) in the Reno Air Races expansion for Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Known as the Texan by the United States Army Air Force, the SNJ by the US Navy, and the Harvard throughout the British Commonwealth, the T-6 is a WWII-era advanced trainer. Thousands of Allied pilots completed their initial flight instruction on basic trainers like the Boeing Stearman or de Havilland Tiger Moth then moved up to the T-6 for advanced training before finally graduating to an operational frontline aircraft like the P-51 Mustang, F6F Hellcat, or Supermarine Spitfire. In total, over 15,000 T-6s were built, and many surplus planes were sold privately after the war.
The T-6 continues to enjoy great popularity to this day as a demonstration plane at air shows and in air races like Reno. In 1944, Captain Paul Jones of the USAAF described the Texan in the following terms, “She makes up for speed in her ease of handling and her maneuverability. She’s a flyer’s airplane. Rolls, Immelmanns, loops, spins, snaps, vertical rolls – she can do anything, and do it beautifully. For the sheer joy of flying, give me an AT-6.”
At Reno, the T-6 was the first new class of racers to be added after the initial three, first competing at the National Championship Air Races in 1966 and being a mainstay in the lineup ever since. The Texans race on Reno’s five mile course; longer than the Biplane and Formula 1 classes, but shorter than the Unlimited, Sport, and Jet races. One of the T-6s appearing in the Reno Air Races expansion for Microsoft Flight Simulator is “Big Red”, a T-6 once flown personally by Jimmy Doolittle, one of the most famous race pilots in history.
For Reno spectators, some of the most exciting and tightly contested races occur in the T-6 class. Unlike the “anything goes” Unlimited class, T-6s at Reno must be flown in as close to stock factory condition as possible, reaching top speeds in the range 220 to 230 mph (190-200 knots). The races in this class are therefore purely a test of strategy and the pilots’ flying skills rather than a measure of airplane performance. At the 2021 National Championship Air Races, the winning T-6 in the Gold race (Baron’s Revenge) finished a mere 8% faster than the 7th place plane (Big Red). In the Unlimited race, by comparison, the Gold champion “Dreadnought” was 19% faster than the runner up and a whopping 37% faster than sixth place. As good as all the pilots at Reno are, no amount of flying skill can overcome such a difference in raw horsepower.
(Editor’s note: in Microsoft Flight Simulator, plane speed is equalized in multiplayer races to ensure a fair experience for every player. When flown in free flight, each plane performs according to its real-world specs.)
Owing to the rising popularity of experimental kit-built planes, the National Championship Air Races added the Sport class to the lineup in 1998. Over the ensuing 20 years, rapid advances in technology have seen dramatic increases to the speeds attained by planes in this class. Sport planes now rival the classic warbirds of the Unlimited class as they race around Reno’s longest 6.37 mile course. In fact, four of the five fastest piston-driven aircraft at Reno 2021 belonged to the Sport class. Only “Dreadnaught”, the Unlimited Gold champion, averaged a faster speed around the pylons than “Race 39”, “Race 24”, “One Moment”, and “Relentless”, the top four finishers from the Sport class Gold race.
When asked for his thoughts about the National Championship Air Races, Sport class pilot Bob Mills said, “The Reno Air Races are just an incredibly special event. It’s the only place in the world where you can see airplanes flying this low, this fast, this close to each other. There’s no other event anywhere in the world quite like it. It’s a spectacle that you can’t see anywhere else.”
Since making their debut at the 2002 National Championship Air Races, the planes from the jet class are Reno’s speed kings. The first Jet race featured only Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatrosses, a Czech-designed military trainer. Over the years since, the field has been expanded to also include other jets like the T-tail L-29 Delfin (also from Aero Vodochody) and the twin-boom de Havilland Vampire from the UK.
With speeds around the 6.37 mile pylon course averaging in excess of 500 mph (435 knots), no other motorsport in the world is as fast as the Jet class races at Reno. While the National Championship Air Races are predominantly an American event, perhaps it’s the drive to be the number one fastest racer on the entire planet that has resulted in the Jet class attracting an increased amount of international interest. The L-39s “Subito”, “Blue Ice”, and “Red Thunder” represent Switzerland, Australia, and Brazil, respectively. The latter two jets are among the ten L-39s available in the Reno Air Races expansion for Microsoft Flight Simulator.
In 2021, a new style of racing debuted at the National Championship Air Races that doesn’t use the pylon courses at all: STOL (short takeoff and landing) Drag. These races have been popular for many years with backcountry pilots at the annual High Sierra Fly-In and appeared at Reno 2019 as a demonstration event, but now they are fully part of the competition. In STOL Drag racing, pilots in taildraggers like Carbon Cubs, Kitfoxes, and Huskies compete head-to-head as they takeoff, fly down 2,000 of runway, complete a full stop landing, make a 180 degree turn, then fly back to the starting line. The winning plane is the first one to land past the start/finish line and come to a complete stop. Pilots employ aggressive forward slips to get their planes onto the ground as quickly as possible. Although only in its first year at Reno, the STOL Drag event fast became a crowd favorite.
A Plane for Every Pilot
In the Reno Air Races expansion for Microsoft Flight Simulator, players will be able to compete in four of the seven classes from the real National Championship Air Races: Biplane, T-6, Unlimited, and Jet. Whether you’re a fan of the agile maneuverability of the Pitts Special, the intense competition of racing the T-6 Texan, the romance and history of the P-51 Mustang, or the raw speed of the L-39 Albatross, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in the Reno Air Races expansion.
To provide our players with the most authentic Reno experience possible, the team completed high definition scans of 40 real Reno planes (10 from each class), including former Gold race champions like “Voodoo”, “Strega”, “Baron’s Revenge”, and “American Spirit”. We also consulted directly with the pilots and ground crews of these plans to ensure their flight models are as realistic as possible. Reno Air Races will release for PC and Xbox Series X|S on November 18, 2021. For more details about the expansion, please see this story.