The way to promote an air race in Las Vegas, Nev. is the way you promote anything else there. The way you do it is to take promotional pictures of a flashy F-51 or one of those sleek little 190-cubic-inch midget racers sitting on a runway, being careful to line up the plane directly behind a preening showgirl. You get the showgirl to wear just anything at all, provided it is not enough, and she smiles all over the runway. This equates sky with sex and is supposed to be box-office dynamite. You do this because you could not otherwise get people in a den-away-from-home like Las Vegas to go 20 miles out in the unairconditioned desert to see Steve Wittman or Art Scholl or guys like that, and also because local newspapers probably would not run a front-page picture of Steve Wittman standing next to a plane, whether he preened or not.
Steve Wittman is 61 years old. He has a big jaw and a little bit of gray hair, and he wears glasses. When he was very young, Steve went to an air race in Dayton. It might have been a race like the one that Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder put on in Las Vegas last week, but the planes they were racing then included something the pilots called a Dormay Bathtub, though it actually was a motorcycle with wings, and Steve was too young to notice if there were any showgirls preening around. What he remembers, though, is this great flyer, Captain Bert Skiel, going into a power dive and his plane coming apart and plunging Captain Bert 12 feet deep into a mudbank, or exactly twice the legal requirement for a proper burial.
The spectacular demise of Captain Bert Skiel made an impression on young Wittman. Thereafter he would not go near airplanes except to build one or race one or discover things about what makes them tick or fail to. Since 1924 Wittman has been building and racing, building and racing. He may be the only pilot ever to be shot down within the continental boundaries of the U.S. He was coming back from a race in Miami in 1950 flying low over the hills of Tennessee, when he got it right in the gas tank from an unidentified Tennesseean with a .22 rifle. Wittman landed in a farmer's field and passed out.
Wittman now runs the airport at Oshkosh, Wis., but he made a few dollars on the side racing planes until 1950. That was when promoters got squeamish about pilots killing themselves and, worse, taking some of the fans with them, as auto racers have done at Monza and Le Mans. One plane put down in the bleachers in Cleveland in 1949, killing three and ruining Cleveland as a center for air racing. Wittman was going great at the time. In fact, nobody has flown more closed-course races than he has. One of his midgets, called Buster, now hangs from a ceiling in the Smithsonian Institution because it was a big winner in Cleveland in the late '40s, or perhaps because the Smithsonian people did not believe air racing would survive and wanted to save some of its past.
Whether it has survived is still to be determined. The Las Vegas races did not draw well, despite names like Scholl and Mira Slovak, the Czech who cracked the Iron Curtain by commandeering an airliner at gunpoint and flying to West Germany, and Darryl Greenamyer, the Lockheed test pilot who is the defending national champion air racer. Jimmie Snyder says he will lose $100,000 on the week but will get hotel support next year and try again. This is only the second year in the air-racing revival and the fifth program since 1949, and there are fewer than 100 pilots at present who are equipped to race. One of them was killed Saturday. Bob Abrams of Campbell, Calif., flying an F-51 Mustang in the unlimited class, developed engine trouble and when he tried to land made too tight a turn and went into a spin, crashing nose first into the grim Nevada countryside.
It was the sixth time Steve Wittman has seen a fellow racing pilot killed. It always saddens him, but it does not discourage him. He was not in Las Vegas to compete, only to officiate, but he will race again. And the younger men who have come after him will face again, too, because that is the way they are.
"When you are on the ground, taping over the joints and sanding the prop and doing all those many things you must do before you go up, you're scared," says Art Scholl. "You're a calculator when you are on the ground, because you know there is danger and you must be prepared for it. But once you start down that runway the fear vanishes, and you are up and you feel you can do almost anything."
This was in the hangar at the Boulder City airport outside Las Vegas, and Scholl, who is 33 and a movie stunt pilot and a professor of aeronautics at Valley College in San Bernardino, Calif., produced a scrap of paper. It showed a series of loops and curlicues and jagged lines. "I keep this taped to the instrument panel for my aerobatics act. Rolls, square loops, Immelmann turns, Cuban eights, knife-edge flight—all that. I figure the series out carefully on the ground, and then when I'm up I don't let my enthusiasm run away with me.
"That's what happened to Cliff Winters. He was a great stunt flyer, the best. He had this act where he comes out of a barricade of fire and does a snap roll. In 1962 at Chino somebody said it would really be spectacular if he could do a double snap roll when he came out of the flames. He said no, it was impossible. Not enough speed. But then he got up there, and when he came through that last barricade he tried it. He tried the double snap roll. And he crashed."
Scholl races a red-and-white midget called Miss San Bernardino. Midget racers do everything the unlimited pilots do in their F-51s and F8F Bearcats, except that they go about half as fast (200 mph to about 400) over a shorter course (two and a half miles to nine and a half miles around pylons 25 feet high). Midget racers consider themselves purists because they build their own planes and are constantly tinkering and modifying. Scholl's midget has been torn apart every year for four years and rebuilt by his students. Two accompanied him as crew to Las Vegas.
Scholl is a skinny six-footer with an easy smile and no pretensions. He does not even own a white silk scarf. When Steve Wittman was winning races in the late '40s Art Scholl was flying model airplanes in Brown Deer, Wis. and marching in the school band. The first time he went up in a plane he was already a senior in high school. He soloed after an hour and a half. "It was just like flying that model airplane. You know, I used to think the NAA was a model-airplane association."
Scholl does a lot of stunt flying for Tallmantz, the outfit that supplies planes and crews for movies and television programs. He gets mostly bad-guy roles—German raiders and Japanese Kamikazes. He has flown everything from a German World War I Fokker DR-1 to one of the old Curtiss Pushers, the type that has the wicker basket out front for the pilot to sit in and nothing but wire and struts behind. The Curtiss Pusher runs wide open at 45 mph and stalls at 35—a delicate margin for error. Once when he was up in it, bucking a head wind, Scholl looked down over a golf course and saw that he was being passed by a golf cart. "Now, that scared me," he says.
Scholl won $2,000 racing at Reno last month but, like all racing pilots, if he were to allow himself $1 an hour for the time he puts in keeping Miss San Bernardino shipshape he would be deep in the hole. In the finals at Las Vegas, Scholl finished fourth to Bob Porter. But he flew the lowest, banked the hardest, turned the sharpest. It looked as though he would surely dig a wing into the sagebrush. Back in the hangar he was congratulated for his daring.
"Did it really look that dangerous?" he said, incredulous. "Gosh, I didn't realize it. It didn't seem that way."