As the sun sets this week on the Reno-Stead Airport as the venue for the National Championship Air Races after 59 years, we celebrate South African aviation’s triumph at this great event.
By Chris Buchanan
There are very few pinnacle sporting events where a novice can simply pitch up and win, and the Stihl National Championship Air Races, aka the Reno Air Races, is one of those.
Every September since 1964, the best in the business of pylon racing gather at the Reno Stead Airport, named after the Races’ founder Bill Stead, to compete in the fastest motorsport on the planet. It’s where flyers become legends and their aircraft even more so, the likes of ‘Voodoo’, ‘One Arm Bandit’, ‘The Galloping Ghost’, ‘Full Tilt Boogie’ and ‘Nemesis’, as popular as Steve Hinton Jr. Robert Lee ‘Hoot’ Gibson, Robert Jones, Patti Johnson and Jon Sharp.
This is where close quarter racing happens upward of 500 mph in the Unlimited Class and a mere 80 ft above the ground in the Biplane Class. You don’t compete at Reno unless you know what you’re doing at the stick and you have no fear of getting up close and personal with the precision of threading a needle.
A ‘bucket list’ invite
Twenty-eight years ago, an accomplished pilot from South Africa travelled to Reno in a borrowed plane with the modest expectation of just making the cut in the Biplane Class. He was the first pilot from the African continent to participate in the pinnacle of pylon racing and it’s an unpublicised story that very few people in the aviation community are aware of.
Our pilot received a call from a close friend in the U.S. Jeff Sharman, an aircraft broker who bought and sold planes into the South African market depending on demand and the rand/dollar exchange rate. Jeff’s neighbour was former U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, American Airlines pilot and speed fiend, Mike Penketh who, through catastrophic injury, was unable to fly his homebuilt Pitts S1S, ‘My Pitts’, at Reno that year. Jeff said to Mike, “I’ve got a guy from Africa who’ll come and fly in the Reno Air Races for you. I know it’s a helluva long shot but he won’t disappoint you”.
That call turned out to be the invite to fulfil a ‘must do’ air event as a competitor with the objective of attracting some attention for the sale of ‘My Pitts’ and the clear provisor that, in the unlikely event our pilot reached the podium in his class, any prize money would go to Mike the owner. All expenses relating to Reno, entrance fees, fuel, etc. would be covered by Mike Penketh so all our pilot needed to do was get there.
An introduction to Reno
“I got into the aeroplane and made friends with it and Mike told me what the air races entailed and a week before the time I flew out to Reno; you’ve got to be there well before race day, they insist on you practising and getting to know the course, and they also validate you and your formation rating to see that you’re not going to do anything stupid”, our pilot tells me.
He was well received, recalling how friendly and accommodating the organisers, as well as fellow competitors were. The message from the experienced racers was, ”You’re going to need a lot of help!”. The help he got in the run-up to the event was from his mate Jeff Sharman, a few South African airline pilots who assisted in the pits with polishing ‘My Pitts” to a smooth, aerodynamic finish, and a flight surgeon whose advice was to fly as smooth as possible, avoiding too much ‘g’ from excessive control inputs which cause drag and slow you down.
Denis Brown, Vice-President of the Biplane Class, who’s been racing since 1981, says people who have flown other classes claim it’s the most difficult aeroplane to fly out there. It’s not the fastest but it requires the most finesse. He says some call it a Nascar race in the air.
A series of heats qualify the top 24 competitors into three finals – gold, silver and bronze consisting of eight pilots each with the quickest at the back from a runway start. Those outside of the 24 who don’t make the cut, spend race day watching from behind the crowd line. Our pilot would see the crowd flashing by at 200 mph as he made his way through the field of the silver final in the Biplane Class with some decent prize money at stake and a nice chunky trophy to boot.
His advantage was his formation aerobatics experience, able to get within a metre or two of the opponent and anticipate the trajectories that would see him getting ahead. “I put the blade between my teeth and I was aggressive but I knew the trajectories of the aircraft and I could tighten up the margins”.
Enter ‘One Arm Bandit’ piloted by Robert Jones, who will turn up at Reno every year until 2002, becoming a journeyman in the Biplane Class and quickly making a name for himself in the early days of 1995. ‘My Pitts’ and ‘One Arm Bandit’ would fight it to the end. “He was a tough contender and once I got past him there was no way I was going to let him in and get between a pylon and myself”.
Our pilot was none other than Scully Levin who ignored the advice from the good doctor to fly with finesse, and hung on by wrenching ‘My Pitts’ home to win the silver final in the Biplane Class at Reno.
Not without irony
And here’s the irony. At the age of 12, Robert Jones had his arm severed from his shoulder in a farming accident. He fell off a tractor and got caught under a ploughshare and lived his entire life with one arm, no prosthetic, hence the name of his aircraft ‘One Arm Bandit’.
The catastrophic injury suffered by Mike Penketh, who owned Scully’s ride ‘My Pitts’ happened on a drag strip. Speed junkie Mike lost control of his dragster sending it rolling down the track. He escaped with his life but lost both of his forearms at the elbow. He would fly again with the help of prosthetics, but not in the confined cockpit of a Pitts Special.
Making the news
With nerves at their highest before the main event, Scully needed to relieve himself but the aircraft were lined up at the start and the race was imminent. In true South Africa tradition, he dashed to the edge of the runway and did the deed behind the large tumbleweed bushes, before scrambling back into the cockpit minutes before the start.
The incident was reported as the South African with a urinary problem, since the organisers had never seen a competitor jumping out of a plane, relieving himself and taking to the air minutes later. Scully recalls an American woman, a descendant of Daniel Boone, asking him, “What is it with you South Africans that you won’t go to the bathroom, you just go out into the garden”.
It took and exhausted Scully three days to get back to South Africa, catching the redeyes to Dallas Fort Worth, New York and then home after a 12-hour layover. He took the first sleeping pill in his life, given to him by a fellow passenger, arrived home and slept for another three days.
Apart from an article he wrote and some attention from the Aero Club and a bit of a fuss from the CEO of the formation team sponsor the Chubb Group, Dirk Ackerman, a South African winning Reno has gone largely unnoticed.
For Scully it was a fairy tale and having succeeded, he never had the inclination to go back. “It’s hugely expensive and you need your own aeroplane so it’s fortuitous that I got the opportunity”.
‘My Pitts’ was sold at the 1995 Reno Air Races for a very good price, thanks to its emphatic win in its class so, for Scully Levin, it was definitely mission accomplished, and contrary to the advice of the experienced flyers, he didn’t need that much help at all!