Were there really once such days? When wings aloft were made for walking and barns were really stormed...when real Hell's Angels flew airplanes at corn-tassel level across farm fields, laughing as the milk soured in the dairy herds and enraged Farmer Browns reached up with pitchforks in ludicrous attempts to bring them down? Well, yes, of course. But the magnificent flying squirrels of that day are now dead or old, and who has come to replace them? If the 1969 national air races at Reno the other day were any measure, the swashbuckle of yore has given way to the burnished cool of suburbia; territory where grinning daredevils in mauve goggles once reigned alone now stands occupied by Establishment men. Indeed, your dentist may be one.
The meet was held at a desolate World War II air base in the sagebrush flats beyond town. Amazingly, a large crowd of people—53,399—turned up out there over the six days of public flying. On the final day a crew of unflappable FAA controllers climbed into the base's abandoned tower and, with portable radio equipment and hand-held signal lights, masterfully handled a torrential flow of private pilots coming in to see the races. Five hundred planes in 2½ hours dropped in on the old air base—a rate that is double the average of traffic handled at Los Angeles International Airport. There were another 1,400 planes at Reno Municipal Airport.
The planes actually entered in the competition were a lovely lot of machinery, with engines tuned to perfection and surfaces brilliantly painted and affectionately shined to a blinding gloss. There were 80 entrants parked in two sparkling ranks perhaps half a mile long: cutesy little midget Formula I racers, jaunty sports biplanes, noble old AT-6/SNJ fighter-trainers from World War II and—remember Rosie the Riveter and the war-bond rally?—10 P-51 Mustangs and four Grumman F8F Bearcats. These last were 400-mph aircraft entered in the glamour class of the races—the Unlimiteds.
No jets could compete, so the ramps rang with anachronistic cries of Contact! and, yes, as planes wheeled out to the runway, propellers spinning in the quaint, transparent circles of not so long ago, there was a constant flicker of thumbs up from the cockpits. Surely these must be the spiritual grandsons of Max Immelmann, he of the Turn, and Lincoln Beachey, the first man to fly inside a building. For it is clear that air racing is dangerous. It involves flying at great speeds at terrifyingly low altitudes (26 feet is the legal minimum) around and around an oval course (3.5 or 8.5 miles, depending on the class) marked by 50-foot-high pylons that must be cut as closely as possible on all turns to avoid losing distance. So who are the daredevils of 1969?
October 5, 1969
Well, there is this graying fellow from Florida, who is wearing a blue golf visor. And sneakers. His name is Edwin H. Snyder, and he is an electrical contractor who paid $3,000 last year for the AT-6 he is flying. His wife, Jere, shoots home movies with a Kodak Instamatic when Ed flies, and they ask their friends over to watch whenever they get home. (There will be 12 rolls from Reno alone.) Jere said the only objection she has to Ed's flying is that he likes to stop at the airport and fly the AT-6 for half an hour or so instead of coming straight home from work. "I'm just hooked on it, I guess," says Snyder.
And here is another graying fellow, lanky and handsome, with the sun-squint marks of a habitual flier at his eyes. Also wearing sneakers. He is Richard Gregory, a very pleasant man from Phoenix, Ariz., and he too has an AT-6. "There have been dozens of articles written about the sex symbolism of flying," he said, "and perhaps that is one of the reasons some of us like to race airplanes. You know—the phallic symbol of the long nose penetrating the sky and all that power at the pilot's command. But no man can generalize about the motivations behind airplane racing." Yes, well, Richard Gregory, airplane racer, is a psychiatrist in real life.
Such is Barnstorm Land '69, populated with realtors and attorneys and dentists and farmers and many airline captains. Except for the occasional roar of engines, the atmosphere of air racing at Reno was one of suburban serenity. Even the spectators seemed sensible and gentle, expressing placid appreciation as they strolled among the planes and pilots, speaking respectfully of air scoops and ailerons and streamlined cockpit canopies as if they were strolling an art gallery instead of an airstrip packed with engines of violent speed. Here and there a pilot and his family could be seen lounging on lawn chairs or blankets, enjoying a cold-chicken picnic from wicker baskets beneath the wing of a doughty little P-51.
Once upon a lime air racing in the U.S. was a swinging, even a heroic sport, with the likes of Glenn Curtiss and Jim Doolittle and Speed Holman and Tex Rankin and Tony LeVier at the controls. Before World War II air races were helpful in testing new aerodynamic and power-plant improvements. The postwar years found aircraft companies doing research that was light-years beyond racing's poor power to help, and the all-important corporate sponsorship of planes disappeared.
A stunning 1949 crash in Cleveland, in which Pilot Bill Odom rocketed into a house, killing himself, a young mother and her baby, almost wrote the sport's obituary. But in 1964 a Reno cattle millionaire named Bill Stead (who was also a hydroplane champion) decided that he just had to see an airplane race, so he promoted the project himself and asked the Reno Chamber of Commerce to sponsor it.
For years Reno has had its nose squashed against the glass, watching the dazzle of the high rollers' paradise to the south, and for years it has tried to whomp up a big-time promotional scheme that would give it some of the Las Vegas gloss. To a town as desperate for promotional gimmicks as Reno, the idea of reviving the air races in 1964 seemed pretty slick and, if nothing else, might bring a few people into the casinos to lose money during the traditional post-Labor Day doldrums.
While Reno itself remains a henna-rinse Las Vegas its uncrowded skies are fine for aircraft, and its affair with flying has been a fairly pleasant partnership. Though Stead died recently in a plane crash, the event has prospered, and the sport is in a state of renascence.
For some time now its brightest ornament has been a stubby, white, hopped-up Bearcat called Conquest I and flown by one of the hottest pilots in the world—a jockey-sized fellow named Darryl Greenamyer. Darryl is a test pilot for Lockheed and has recently been flying the SR-71, a machine designed to cruise at mach 3. He has flown 600 hours at mach 2 speeds, 200 hours at mach 3. As for his capabilities in prop-driven craft, it was Greenamyer, age 33, and his Conquest I, age 25, that streaked across Edwards Air Force Base in California on Aug. 16 at 477.98 mph. That shattered a world speed record for prop planes—a record held since 1939 by a German Messerschmitt. Becomingly candid, Greenamyer says, "This plane has dominated racing for the last few years. If we get off the ground and the wheels come up, we don't lose. Of course, we built this specifically as a racing craft. Most others in the Unlimiteds are flying planes for sport. It really isn't very fair, I suppose."
Really, it isn't. Before this year's race, Greenamyer announced that it was the last for Conquest I, then climbed into the tiny cockpit and rolled the old fighter out onto the ramp. At the end of the first lap (8.5 miles around), Greenamyer led the runner-up by half a mile. At the sixth lap, he was five miles ahead, at the ninth, 7.5, and when he flashed past the checked flag after the 12th and last circuit, he had lapped the entire field and won by an astonishing nine miles, setting a record of 412.631 mph. After Greenamyer taxied up to a relatively docile crowd, his crew of mechanics poured champagne all over him and all over old Conquest I. They shouted, they whistled, they clicked their heels in the air. Nothing suburban about their exuberance.
Ah, perhaps here one could revive the flamboyance of the old days. The grease monkeys...guys born with a wrench between their teeth and an oil smear on their checks...guys made of strut wire and propeller metal. Here was Ray Poe, Conquest I's crew chief, and what did this simple mechanic think of Greenamyer's racing feat? "Man is a hunter by nature." Man's world is now the machine. The best machine makes the best hunter, and we had the best machine today." Thus spake the grease monkey—a Lockheed research flight engineer in real life.