MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Some race-car drivers describe their job as “go fast and turn left.”
One Twin Cities pilot will be using the same strategy in next week’s National Championship Air Races. Only, he’ll be going a lot faster.
I met up with that pilot as the airplane known as Sawbones was about to take flight for the air races in Reno, Nev.
“The owner is an orthopedic surgeon, so that’s where the name of the airplane came from,” Curt Brown said.
With a resume that includes commercial airline pilot, Air Force pilot, and Space Shuttle commander, you might expect that Brown would race a 1949 fighter plane for fun.
“Aircraft from this era you have to actually fly,” he said, comparing the British-made Hawker Sea Fury to modern aircraft, which often feature autopilot.
“The neat thing about these aircraft is a huge propeller — 13-foot, 6-inch diameter propeller — 3,000 horsepower, and the noise…I can’t say noise… the music that it makes when you’re taking off and flying is unbelievable,” he said.
A team of 11 has been prepping Sawbones at Anoka County Airport in Blaine for weeks, and Brown’s wife will be on the radio helping him from the ground on race day.
Private investors and corporate sponsors are the wind beneath their wings.
“We can fly low, fly fast, and we fly around other aircraft during a race…obviously trying to pass ’em,” Brown said.
Between six and nine planes race at the same time around a 9-mile loop in the sky, so pilots need to be military-precise.
“There [are] altitude limits: The bottom of the course is 50 feet above the ground, the top of the course is 250 feet above the ground,” Brown said. “And we’re doing it between 430 and 500 miles an hour.”
When I mentioned that it sounds dangerous, Brown added, modestly, “It’s not without risk.”
From its start in 1964 and up until 2011, there had never been an injury at the National Air Races. That year a major crash killed a pilot and spectators, bringing about rule changes to make the course safer.
But it’s still risky, and engines can still fail.
“You glide down, and that’s where I think I have the advantage as a shuttle pilot — we land without engines all the time!”
Flight in machines such as a Hawker Sea Fury is rare as it is beautiful.
And yet, as you might expect, Brown’s favorite part of the job isn’t the view, it’s “winning.”
Last year, Sawbones finished fourth in the world in the unlimited class.
This year’s Reno Air Races are next Wednesday through Sunday, and you can follow their progress online.