Events Move Forward After Tough Week
by ANN Correspondent Matthew Russell
"Poignant" may be the best word to describe the finale of the
2007 Reno National Championship Air Races. Pilots, crewmembers, and
fans wrapped up a tough week Sunday with clean, fast racing. After
an accident-marred week of qualifying, wherein three race pilots
lost their lives within four days, the races came to an end on a
more upbeat note.
In what could only be described as an upset, airline captain
John Penney took Unlimited Gold from 2006 champ Mike Brown. Penney,
flying crowd favorite Rare Bear, streaked past Brown’s
September Fury and held a dominant lead. After pursuing Rare Bear
for a couple of laps, Brown’s engine failed and forced him to
make a precautionary landing, which he executed in expert
The action was not over, however.
After winning the race, Penney reported his throttle was stuck
partially open, and he could not slow the Rare Bear down for
landing. Orbiting Stead Field at about 10,000 feet MSL, safety
pilot Steve Hinton (in the T-33 pace jet) took a closer look as
Penney burned off fuel.
As they circled, Hinton and Penney calmly discussed options for
landing, as tens of thousands watched without breathing. Penney
opened his canopy and executed a flawless deadstick landing. The
sink rate was such that he lost about 5,000 feet from the downwind
leg to final approach.
During the victory celebration, new Rare Bear owner Rod Lewis
proudly announced, "I think it’s safe to say the Bear is
back!" On the ramp, fans struggled for a chance to congratulate
Penney and Hinton on their spectacular displays of airmanship under
Excitement also ensued in the "Super Sport" class this year.
Though often described as "the future of air racing," expectations
for Sport Gold in 2007 were lower than usual given the notable
absences of John Parker’s Blue Thunder and Darryl
Greenamyer’s Race 33. However, this attrition set the stage
for a showdown between the exotic, equally-matched NXT racers of
Jon Sharp and Kevin Eldredge.
Eldredge jumped out to an early lead, but ran into lap-traffic
about halfway through the race. Sharp, ever the strategist with a
number of Gold wins under his belt, flew high and avoided the
traffic jam. Once out front, Sharp made no mistakes and sailed to
victory. Michael Dacey, in his super hot (and rare) Questair
Venture, placed a strong third.
The heavily revised Jet class was made much more interesting by
the acceptance of different jet models. This year two L-29s, a
T-33, and even a T-2 Buckeye were added to the requisite fleet of
L-39s. Crowd members responded well to the excitement this created,
and the Jet Gold class was riveting.
In Saturday’s race Lockheed T-33 pilot Lee Griffin
encountered a handling problem which indirectly forced him to start
at the back of the pack Sunday. Despite having qualified 23 mph
behind the T-33’s staggering 525 mph, T-2 Buckeye pilot Rich
Sugden leveraged his Sunday pole position to hold off all
The Biplane Gold race was taken by Chris Ferguson in Miss
Gianna. David Hoover won the International Formula One class flying
Endeavor, and Dennis Buehn in Midnight Miss III took the T-6
A number of symbolic gestures -- such as missing-man formations
and ceremonial "final laps" -- were conducted Sunday. In its own
way, the tightly knit air racing community publicly paid tribute to
aviators lost earlier in the week.
Perhaps the most meaningful gesture of all was the will to press
forward and succeed in the face of abject tragedy. Spectators flock
to the Reno National Championship Air Races not only for the
excitement, noise, and technology, but for the startlingly bright
reflection of human spirit that seems to accompany the sport.
In a display not even words can capture, the spectacle of air
racing perfectly explains why people dream to become pilots.