Rookies, Vets Train On New Air Race Course

RENO, NV - It's tryout time for the 20 rookies attending this year's Pilot Training Seminar for the National Championship Air Races.

It's a chance to measure their skills against some of the world's best.

"They think they want to be air racers and if they are good enough they will join an extremely elite core of aviators that are certified to race in Reno," says Reno Air Races President and CEO Mike Houghton.

And many of that elite group were here as well. Some were acting as instructors, testing the newcomers, ultimately deciding if they were ready to share a closed three dimensional course at high speed.

It's strictly pass-fail. A few may drop out. Some may be determined unready. For each it's a challenge.

"It's really exciting," says rookie AT-6 pilot Rod Hightower. "It takes a high level of skill. You really have to pay attention and be on your game. It's a blast."

Maybe so, but he did have a smile on his face. Clearly he thought he was doing OK.

"As a rookie you never know, but I haven't had too many chips in the briefing," he said.

But even the veteran pilots have something new to learn.

Following last year's crash, a number of changes were made, among them was altering the course itself.

What caused Jimmy Leeward's P-51 to suddenly blot skyward, then plummet into the ground in front of the box seats is still a matter under investigation, but the National Transportation Safety Board has already suggested softening the turn on the western side of the course, lessening the g-forces and those changes were made.

"We just kind of made it not to so tight of a turn radius<" says veteran jet pilot Mike Mangold, who tested the new alignment and made some suggestions.

"We don't have so much energy directed toward the ramp area and the spectators, " he adds. "It's actually easier to fly because you don't have to use as much G."

The course changes have moved the action further from the spectators. Houhgton says he doubts they will notice.

"As far as I'm concerned when I look at it I can't see a difference. When you look at it on a piece of paper, there is a difference. The race course is now another 150 feet north."

Houghton says the remaining hurdles for organizers are primarily financial. The crash raised liability insurance costs from $300,000 to $2 million. A fundraising effort is underway to cover the difference.

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