How perversely appropriate that an event so burdened with hyperbole as "The Great Miami Air Race"—sponsored in part by the "Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce" and "Great Miami Air Race, Inc."—should result in a personal triumph for two little old gentlemen in old little airplanes.
Air Race? Great? Words from another time. Nothing much is "great" anymore; "super" perhaps, but almost never "great." And isn't air racing something Richard Aden used to do? Or was it Richard Dix? Goggles and wind-whipped silk scarves. Oil spattering back into an open cockpit. A tailspin. "The stick, the stick—pull the stick!" "You can't send a mere boy up in a crate like that!"
Ah, but Miami is a community not easily cowed by a common anachronism. Lord knows, it harbors its share of old-timers. And few can fault it for paying homage to the air industry, which for the better part of four decades has been dutifully ferrying all those numberless senior citizens south for the winter.
Still, despite modern hoopla during the week, The Great Miami Air Race seemed pleasantly antique. The competing airplanes—aeroplanes?—were propeller-propelled, jets being too big, too fast, too hard for the spectators to watch and far too expensive for the sportsmen who compete in such races to buy. Watching those marvelously maneuver-able biplanes, midgets and World War II fighters and trainers in flight was a bit like watching a pole vault with bamboo poles—the man, not the equipment, was the thing. The pilots themselves were mostly of middle age, men who as boys looked upon flying as an adventure, not a technical exercise, and the planes they flew last weekend were the stuff of which boyhood dreams were made. It was a backward flight into fantasy, and when a gargantuan National Airlines 747 was flown low over the runway of the New Tamiami Airport to show the time-travelers what giant steps forward we have made, it seemed less a mark of progress than a melancholy reminder of how gross we have become.
January 29, 1973
There are not many air races these days—four, maybe five, a year. This was the first held in Miami since 1950 and the first "international" race in the U.S. in 36 years. Actually, it was international in name only, for though they were invited no foreign flyers appeared and only one foreign-made plane was flown. The Great Miami Air Race was as American as Amelia Earhart.
The competition was divided into four classes: the Unlimited for modified old fighter planes, the AT-6 for vintage military trainers, the Biplane and the so-called "Formula I" for tiny planes built to racing specifications. These last, mere toys that looked in the air as if wires should be attached to them, quickly captivated the 70,000 or so spectators who turned out for the weeklong show. In these, pilot and plane are virtually as one, for the machine is not that much larger than the man.
A Formula I plane weighs barely more than 500 pounds, is about 18 feet long and has a wingspan of around 15 feet. They are powered by 100-horsepower engines and, astonishingly, can reach speeds of 250 mph or more in a straightaway. Formula I planes can be torn apart by strong winds and even menaced by large birds. Since they carry only five to 10 gallons of gasoline and consume about one gallon for every nine miles, they can neither be flown too far nor too high.
Their pilots tend to be quirky individualists who fuss like antique-car owners over their aircraft. They wear costumes, good-luck charms and call their planes by names—such as NO BIG THING and Therapy. Most of the men are over 40 and should know better than to risk their necks in, well, crates like these.
Probably the finest Formula I pilots are both older and presumably (though not necessarily) wiser than their comrades in flight. Bob Downey, a Whit-tier, Calif. paint manufacturer, and Bill Falck, a retired airport operator from Warwick, N.Y., are in their late 50s, have been flying for more than 40 years each and both operate planes that are about half their age. Last year they dominated Formula I racing, winning three of the four major events. Downey was the year's top point-winner and Falck had the fastest winning time—227.2 mph.
Downey flies a plane, Ole Tiger, that is considered undersize even by the standards of this aeronautical Lilliput. Ole Tiger weighs 535 pounds—only 375 more than the pilot—is but 17.2 feet long and has a wingspan of 14.1 feet. The cockpit is so cramped that Downey cannot wear ordinary flying headgear. Instead, and appropriately enough, he wears a Little League batting helmet. But he has flown this pint-sized plane at a top speed of 270 mph.
Still, Ole Tiger is not as swift as Falck's Rivets—which is named not for the obvious reasons but after the comic-strip dog. In a trial heat last week Falck tied his own Formula I world record with a 232.2-mph lap. Rivets is a hundred pounds heavier than Ole Tiger and is 17.9 feet in both length and wingspan. Because of his plane's comparative bulk, Falck is generally a slow starter who then pulls out of the pack and treats spectators to a Garrison finish. Downey is quick on the takeoff and nimble on the turns. He forces a race; Falck waits to make his move.
The Falck-Downey—Rivets-Ole Tiger—duel was a natural crowd-pleaser, and the pilots did not fail their audience. Their several races were the most thrilling of the week.
Little planes are more fun to watch, if only because they are so much easier to watch. In Miami they flew on a short, three-mile course and were always visible. The Unlimited planes require an eight-mile course that puts them virtually out of sight—and occasionally out of mind—for much of the time.
In both the Friday and Saturday trials, Downey and Falck flew true to form. The red and white Tiger took early leads and, flying low—little more than 50 feet off the ground—clung close to the pylons. While Downey took the low road, Falck took the high, wide one. Winging last at the start of both races, he twice caught and passed Downey from above in the closing laps. Their times were nearly identical. In the six-lap Friday race, Falck averaged 219.9 mph, Downey 219.5. Saturday, Falck was 220.8, Downey 220.4. In the one race Downey pleaded a tight engine, in the other a large and sluggish propeller. But he is more given to tinkering with his machine than alibiing for its failings. Falck is his friend, and he enjoys racing him almost as much as beating him.
Mostly, he loves flying his Tiger. "This plane fits you like a glove," he says affectionately. "You don't so much fly it as wear it."
Downey, a short, friendly, florid-faced man, is as effusive as Falck is taciturn. "I think the rest of us will split the prize money," he advised Falck before one race, "just by having someone lead you off" course. I don't know why it is that when you give me every chance with your starts, I can't take advantage of it."
"Maybe," said Falck, "you will." He did not. Falck won the Sunday final easily, flash home at an average 224.5 mph while the tiny Tiger, buffeted by gusty winds, could only crank out 217.7.
How does one get started flying competitively? "Well," says Falck, "first you got to get yourself an airplane. And that costs money."
That it does: Downey paid $10,000 for Ole Tiger nine years ago and, despite his winning, has lost approximately that much in the last three years shipping, repairing and maintaining it.
This, however, is a mere drop in the fuel tank when compared with the investments of the Unlimited pilots. Cliff Cummins, a Riverside, Calif. radiologist and consistently star-crossed flyer, estimates that he has sunk some $140,000 into his Mustang fighter in the years he has owned it. Cummins, who was once an Air Force gunnery instructor, belly-landed the Mustang in the Nevada desert three years ago during the Reno air races after a small throttle link snapped. The very same gadget failed him on the sixth lap of the eight-lap semifinal heat in Miami on Saturday. Cummins was leading at the time and had recorded the fastest qualifying-heat time of 376.8 mph earlier in the week.
"I do not again need that sudden silence in the engine up there," he confided nervously after he had coaxed his failing airplane into a neat landing.
Because of his outstanding times and because the plane could be fixed in time, his fellow pilots ruled that Cummins should be allowed to compete in the Sunday finals, but not for the top prize money of $8,055. He could compete for glory and lesser cash consolation prizes. But, alas, he was denied even glory Sunday: this time his lap-counter broke and Cummins lost track of the race. When he finally made his move he was too far back and finished fifth behind winner Lyle Shelton, who averaged 373.3 mph.
Despite his troubles, Cummins had greatly contributed to the dramatic success of the first Great Miami Air Race. And the little fellows, Falck and Downey, had made it an artistic success. In the end there was hopeful talk of this becoming an annual event.
But air racing is a hazard in the air and at the bank, and neither pilots nor planes are getting any younger. Downey sagely observed: "You never know what the hell is going to happen up there."
True down here, too.