TAKING FLIGHT: 53rd annual National Championship Air Races off to a fast start | TheUnion.com

TAKING FLIGHT: 53rd annual National Championship Air Races off to a fast start

A pair of sleek L-39 Jet Class racers battle at speeds over 500 mph at last year's National Championships.
Photo by Tim O’Brien |

The skies above Stead Field, north of Reno, are swarming this week as 154 entrants qualified for heat races in six classes beginning today.

The 53rd annual National Championship Air Races and Show promises to be an exciting year, particularly in the Sport Class, which has a record 43 entrants.

The innovative, but comparatively economic kit-built planes have not only grown in popularity with pilots, but are edging lap speeds in excess of the 400 mph mark, surpassing some of their Unlimited Class cousins of greater horsepower and weight. Returning champion, John Parker of Reno, who won handily at 377.403 mph last year is sure to feel the heat from Jeff Lavelle of Mukilteo, Wash., who qualified his Glassair III at 403.411 mph.

The Formula One Class, which fielded 16 racers in 2015, has grown to 23, culminating in a schedule change extended into the late morning hours to accommodate their increased numbers. Last year’s champion, Steve Senegal of San Bruno enjoyed a winning average of 238.243 mph. He faces stiff competition from rookie Lowell Slatter of Buhl, Idaho upon clocking his Gilbert DG2 racer this week at 253.787 mph.

The Biplane Class numbers 16 qualifiers with seasoned pilots dueling mostly Pitts Specials in tight formation. Jeffrey Rose of Carmichael currently holds the pole at 221.946 mph with his modified Mong Sport, “Reno Rabbit.”

The AT-6 Class with 15 veteran contenders promises the most steadfast competition using robust World War II trainers that are mandated to remain stock. Pilot skill and finesse will determine whether returning champion, Dennis Buehn of Carson City, Nevada will prevail against Nick Macy of Tulelake. Both Buehn and Macy posted record qualifying speeds of 249.277 mph and 251.792 mph respectively.

Sixteen Jet Class entries are comprised of mostly sleek L-39 trainers and two unique De Havilland Vampire turbines this year. Pilot, Zachary McNeill of Corpus Christi, Texas has entered two jets, an L-39 and an additional Vampire in a quest to beat last year’s champion, Pete Zaccagnino of Park City, Utah who flew his British built DH115, “Vampire” to a 2015 victory at 502.370 mph. Rick Vandam of Reno is currently the top qualifier with his L-39, “American Spirit.”

Only 11 modified World War II fighter planes have entered the Unlimited class including six-time champion, Steven Hinton Jr. of Chino, flying “Voodoo.” With arch rivals, “Rare Bear” and “Strega” sitting out this year, it will be up to the ever consistent Brian Sanders of Ione, in “Dreadnought” and rookie James Consalvi of Midland, Texas in his radically modified and proven Yak-11, “Czech mate” to push the 500 mph mark to catch Hinton amidst less prepared, but highly nostalgic P-51 Mustangs and Hawker Sea Furies.

In addition to racing, Reno/Stead Airport will host the U.S. Navy Blue Angels including aerobatic and exhibition flying of Jim Peitz, Mike Wiskus, Wings of Blue USAF Academy Jump Team and the Smoke ‘n Thunder Jet Car.

The 53rd annual Reno National Championship Air Races and Show will be held today through Sunday at the Stead Airport located 10 miles north of Reno. General and reserved seating tickets can be purchased at the gate.

For official qualifying times, race results and more information, visit http://www.airrace.org.

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