Going Mach 0.3 with your hair on fire

The day dawned as so many had in the early summer of 2018 in Georgia. Scuzzy clouds draped over the landscape, a hangover from the previous day’s rainstorms, and with no major frontal system approaching, the clouds threatened to loaf around until late in the morning.

On the ground at Kaolin Field in Sandersville, Georgia (KOKZ), a dozen planes rested, bathing in the dew on their wings, waiting for the ceiling to lift, for the pilots to come to the flightline and for their engines to fire up with the first throaty rumbles of race day. Inside the FBO, the pilots themselves sat, fidgeting, ducking outside every five minutes to check the weather, chatting with each other – some as old friends, some as nervous newcomers – and endlessly reviewing the race course and plotting their strategy around it.

Welcome to the Sunrise 100.

This race, along with a dozen or so others every year, is put on by the Sport Air Racing League. “Racing for the Rest of Us” the website says. “The Sport Air Racing League (SARL) exists to promote open course air racing for experimental, production and vintage military aircraft.” If you’re thinking about the vaunted Reno air races, with planes zooming wingtip to wingtip around an oval track, requiring precision formation flying and high speed maneuvering, then you’re not quite right. Well, except for the high speed maneuvering part.

SARL website
There are dozens of classes in the SARL.

Sport Air Racing events are more like timed rallies around a fixed course. They are open to any pilots and most any planes, as long as those planes have a propeller. The courses vary from race to race. Most are single-venue events that start and stop at the host airport, with a number of turning points along the track. Some, in concert with Sun ‘n Fun and EAA AirVenture, are point-to-point and give pilots extra motivation to go fast on their way to those fly-ins. And to keep things fun and competitive, there are several different classes that any plane can race in, from the Unlimited (yes, even a P-51 can compete) down to a Cessna 152.

This year’s Sunrise 100 was scheduled as a preview event before the annual race down to Sun ‘n Fun, but weather forced a postponement until later in June. This proved fortuitous, as my schedule had not allowed me to compete in April but did open up for the June contest. It would be my third race in as many years with my Mooney Ovation 3, and I looked forward to building on past experience to see how much I could increase my speed.

Make no mistake. While SARL is mostly about regular pilots flying regular airplanes, it still draws a cadre of people who, as Rickie Bobby would say, “wanna’ go fast!” SARL racers test their limits in whatever way they deem most appropriate. Pilots in the experimental classes can soup up their engines with high compression cylinders, advance their timing, add fairing and airframe modifications and any number of other enhancements to gain that extra knot or two of airspeed.

Flying the production classes, we have fewer options for airplane or engine mods as we are constrained by the Type Certificate, but there are still methods at our disposal. Critical is reducing all types of drag as much as possible. This means a smooth paint job with high quality wax, closing all vents during the race, and as one couple has done with their beautiful red and white Grumman Cheetah, covering up all vents with “race tape” for each event. They claim that even on a 125 knot aircraft, this gives them a knot or two extra.

Aircraft loading also plays an important role. More weight means more drag, so you want to carry only as much gas as needed for the race and proper reserves. But carrying less gas in most planes also means you have shifted the center of gravity forward. In flight, this means the horizontal stabilizer is working harder, creating more drag. So experienced pilots know to put some extra ballast in the back to lessen this force and reduce drag even further. Again, a knot or two extra, and it all helps.

And then there are in-flight tactics. The races are judged by time around a course, or between two points. It’s not all about the raw speed of the aircraft, as wind and weather can play a role. For the longer point-to-point races, careful analysis of wind and altitudes is critical to get the best groundspeed. For the shorter races around a course, altitude does not factor in as much; each course leg is generally only about 20 miles, and the turns have to be made at pattern altitude over the waypoint so spotters can identify every racer. These races tend to be flown at around 1,000 ft. AGL no matter what the winds.

But even with these constraints, in-flight tactics play a role. The courses are laid out most often with FAA-designated airports as each turning point, so it’s easy to plot the course into your GPS navigator and follow the magenta line. But racing is racing, whether it’s on skis, in a car or flying a plane. The shortest line with the fastest speed wins the day. Learning to take the fastest line through each turn is critical to seeing your best times.

Shallow turns are not that difficult. But it is important to remember that just like a ski racer has to turn around the outside of a pole, an air racer has to turn over or outside the designated waypoint. Spotters are there to check this, and each racer has to make a radio call at the waypoint for verification. So if you let your GPS lead the turn as many of them will, you risk taking an inside track and getting disqualified. Because of this, most racers will hand-fly the turns for greater precision.

Acute turns, hairpins with up to 180 degrees of direction change, these are where your inner fighter pilot gets to surface. Steep turns are fun, but they have negative consequences. While there is some risk of stall if taken to the extreme, the bigger problem for racers is that steep turns create drag and cause deceleration. This effect varies across planes, of course. A sporty RV with short wings and faster roll rate won’t notice it as much. But Mooneys, while famous for speed and efficiency, are not noted for their agility.

The answer for maintaining speed (and reducing stall risk) is to unweight the wing in the turn. It’s a common technique in aerobatics, and it allows the wing to execute the turn without building up drag. Just lower the nose and perform the steep turn while maintaining about one G on the wing. Airspeed stays up, the turn is tight, and you have made the shortest line around the marker. And for just a second or two you can pretend you’re flying an F-18 rather than your regular bug-smasher.

Racers, Start Your Engines

After an hour’s delay, the ceilings started to lift and pilots came together for the safety briefing. While SARL does allow racers to test their limits, there are still strict protocols in place to ensure a safe outcome. The safety briefing included a final review of the course, frequencies to use at each check point, passing techniques, and special procedures to use in case of mechanical difficulty. But after that, the air boss spoke the magic words: “Racers, start your engines!”

Being a timed race, planes are positioned for start based on their expected flying speed. For the Sunrise 100, I was put into second position, behind a Lancair IV with a history of smoking the field. There was an RV-8 behind me in third position, which gave me some concern. This plane was in the RV-GOLD class: put something bigger than a 360 cubic inch engine into a sportster like that and it’s bound to go very fast. So that became my challenge for the day… stay ahead of THAT guy.

We took off in 30 second intervals. The rules require crossing the departing runway threshold before proceeding on course, at which point you give your first call out.

“Race 103, start,” I said on the radio as the threshold disappeared below and I started my first turn on course. Two other decisions are critical when starting the race: how high to go, and how hard to run the engine. Since this was a closed course with roughly 20nm legs, I chose to climb to 1600 feet, or about 1000 feet above the ground. Wind was not a big factor, but turbulence was. The air was choppy. Not exceptionally rough, but more like the washboard effect you get on dirt roads that haven’t been graded recently. Bumpy, but manageable.

I consider engine management my primary task in a race. While I want to go fast, I also want to use this plane for everyday purposes and I don’t have a bottomless budget to fix an engine blowout. So in my first race I stayed very conservative, running at wide-open throttle and 2500 RPM. In my second race I bumped that up to WOT and 2550 RPM. For the Sunrise 100, I pushed it again, to WOT and 2600 RPM. Fuel flow I set to rich of peak, at a level to maintain cylinder head temperatures in the 360 degree range. Probably somewhat below best power setting, but cool running for safety.

RV-8
Some airplanes just look fast sitting on the ground, including the RV-8.

Engine and altitude set, on course for the first checkpoint, it was time to set the radios. Just like IFR flying, it’s important to stay ahead of the airplane to fly an efficient race. This means dialing in the frequency you need at the checkpoint, rehearsing your callout, and reviewing your turn point so you can visually identify it. It’s amazing how quickly 20 nm goes by when you are crossing the ground at more than 3 nm per minute.

And that’s how fast I was going. My true airspeed readout showed 192 knots, give or take, and my airspeed indicator was solidly in the yellow. Normally in bumpy air I would back off the speed, but the chop wasn’t too bad, and I had no passengers to worry about. I chose the calculated risk of maintaining maximum speed. It’s one of the many little tradeoffs you have to make on race day.

I was about two minutes away from the first checkpoint when I heard the Lancair in front of me. “Race 3, Turn 1” he called out. Dang, after only 23 nm he’s already gained a minute and half on me. He really is burning! But I never had a hope of staying with him. My concern was Race 27, the RV behind me.

And sure enough, not long after crossing Turn 1 I heard a radio call: “Race 27 is passing the Mooney on the right.” I looked below, and the familiar planform of an RV-8 passed on my right, about 200 feet below. And it was at this point I realized my mistake. I had climbed just a bit too high and suffered some airspeed loss as a result. That’s what allowed him to overtake. But that also meant I had some altitude I could convert back to speed. I lowered the nose to drop in behind him and the game was afoot!

And here is where my inner fighter pilot got to shine for the first time in this race. A year earlier I had installed an ADS-B transponder, which provides traffic readouts to the big G1000 PFD in front of me. With synthetic vision turned on, the RV’s traffic blip now appeared directly in my gunsight – er, my syn-vis Highway in the Sky boxes. All I had to do was keep that blip centered in my crosshairs and chase him down.

Turn 2 was the biggie, a nearly hairpin left turn from a heading of 111 degrees to 318 degrees. But with Race 27 still directly in front, I executed the steep turn to perfection, circling cleanly over the checkpoint and rolling out on the heading with no loss of speed. We were halfway through the race, with only one more turn to go.

Prepping for Turn 3, I reviewed the aerial graphic of the airport and surrounding landmarks to get a sense of my best line. The fastest course would take me outside the checkpoint to turn across it toward the finish line. But the day was still hazy, and the airport was blending in with surrounding farmland. And loath as I was to admit it, Race 27 had increased his lead by a slight margin. I could still see his traffic blip, but I no longer had sight of the plane itself.

To avoid disqualification, I decided to overfly the airport on a straight line so I could see it and then make my turn. No doubt this cost me perhaps a mile of extra flying time. But after that I was on the final leg and had one more trick up my sleeve.

I had carried a bit of extra altitude to start the race. One reason was for the tight Turn 2 where I planned to lose about 200 feet. But the other reason was to make the final leg one big downhill run. So that’s what I did. I started a 100 foot-per-minute descent just after Turn 3 and pointed the nose straight to the finish line. There are no altitude restrictions at the finish line other than standard FAR requirements, so I planned to cross it at 500 ft AGL. High speed pass, Mooney style.

Not far into the last leg I heard the Lancair call out “Race 3, finish” so he had gained almost six minutes on me in just 100nm. But the RV was still in my sights, and I was running deep into yellow on the airspeed indicator and showing 199 knots true. As I neared the line, I heard the RV call out “Race 27, finish” and then about 15 second later I did the same.

“Race 103, finish.” I zoomed back up to pattern altitude, pulled back the power, and did an extended downwind to cool off before coming back to land. The Sunrise 100 was over for me… now to await the results.

The Tally

Trophy by Mooney
First place among factory airplanes – not bad for the third race!

Results are calculated by measuring each racer’s total time across a designated surface track. For the Sunrise 100, the actual distance between each of the checkpoints, from start to finish, was 102 nm. But SARL adds a standard distance for each turn, so the official length for this race was 109.67 nm. The final results were tabulated to show the calculated speed around the course (in MPH, not knots). The top three finishers were:

Race 3 – Lancair IV – 266.57 MPH

Race 27 – RV-8 – 225.92 MPH

Race 103 – Mooney M20R – 224.77 MPH

My speed translated into 195.45 knots, very close to the factory-stated max cruise speed of 197 knots. Each race I have improved, from 180.34 knots in my first race, to 190.47 knots in the second, and in the third, all the way to Mach 0.3! My hair perhaps wasn’t on fire, but my pride sure was. For the third race in a row, I upheld the Mooney reputation and took home First Place in the Production Class.

I’ll never catch that Lancair, to be sure. But there are a few more things I can try to go after the RV. I’ve still got 100 more RPM before redline. I can shave a few hundred feet off initial cruising altitude. Maybe carry a bit less gas, or add a bit more ballast in the luggage compartment. Pay better attention to my line.

And oh yeah… where can I get me some of that race tape?!

4 Comments

  • Oh, what memories! It has been just under 20 years since I found myself being asked to be a co-pilot in a 2,000 mile cross country air race. “Who me?” I said to myself. “I know nothing about racing airplanes.” That’s when I met the experienced air racer looking for a co-pilot. He was an intense competitor beyond anything I had ever witnessed. I became his co-pilot. We raced 9 races together in 1999, placing 1st in six and 2nd in the other three. It was an honor and a thrill; a learning experience no doubt. I also met my husband. You see, he was that experienced air racer who needed a co-pilot. Good thing I didn’t pass up that opportunity that came out of the blue (no pun intended). Thanks for the memories!

  • Great article – I’m dabbling with the idea of starting air racing – although where we are (South Africa) they are navigation exercises as well as being races – looking for a navigator…. And hey, you’re flying as fast as you feel – if that is “only Mach 0.3” so what? It feels like Mach 1.

  • Air racing is very enjoyable and high adrenalin level sport. I keep reading of them few times. I have never participated in one but would love to squeeze in as a second pilot and help with out. I know it is just a wishful thinking.

    Happy flying !!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *