Fastest Speed Ever at the Reno Races! An interview with Curt Brown at the 2009 National Championship Air Races

At the 2009 Reno Races I had the privilege to meet and record this interview with Curt Brown.  Journalist Guy Clifton from the Reno Gazette-Journal asked some pertinent questions about racing jets at the Reno National Championship Air Races and I think you’ll enjoy the unscripted, candid look at what it’s like to be a pilot flying fast and low at break-neck speeds in a jet…

Curt is a down to earth, a bottom line kind of person – smart as a whip and quite modest really about his accomplishments. He’s a privileged man who’s earned his position of a “just for fun jet pilot racer” who happened to break the record for the fastest speed ever in the 46 year history of the races.  All in his beautiful black and gold L-29 Jet (Race 77), aptly named “Viper.”

Rarely is there an opportunity for the local papers to print an entire interview.  Usually, merely the key points are highlighted.  I only wish I could publish the entire 15 minute film – so you could hear the awesome sounds of the rotary engines roaring in the background (the racing T-6’s).  It was great to hear and feel the joy for flying at Reno from Curt. I hope you too enjoy this moment of the 2009 races.  ~My thanks to Guy Clifton and Curt Brown for this occasion.

Guy: I didn’t see that you had broken the record until yesterday. I wanted to do a bigger story on that. That’s the fastest speed ever in the 46 year history of the air races. I was hoping you would tell me about the qualifying flight and what the conditions were like?

Curt Brown: We qualified the fist time on Monday morning, the first chance to qualify. We have only 11 airplanes in the class this year and we didn’t have as much qualifying practice time as compared to the other classes so we wanted to make sure we had guys qualified.

So we qualified first Monday morning to get it out of the way and we flew at 527 and a little bit of change, which was faster than the air plane went last, last year I qualified at 524.

But it was a cool morning if you remember Monday. So Wednesday we decided in the afternoon it was a lot warmer so it helped me out a little bit when it comes to the airframe. Because we’re up against the airframe. We may have a little bit more thrust, so the temperature doesn’t hurt us,  so we went out and hit Wednesday afternoon and did the 538 plus little bit of change. And ah, I have to tell you…(a brief pause as the low rumble of the T-6 Class airplanes taking off for their heat drowns out Curt’s voice…) ah, that going around the race course at 538 mph is a riot!

Going from, …I used to race unlimited in the past you know, I used to fly Strega, and used to fly Voodoo and raced some Sea Fury’s and stuff in my past, but going around the course at 470 – 480 or so and then going to 538, that’s only 50 mph, but it’s a huge change – it’s definitely a ride!

Guy: In the jet class, being a fairly new class, where is the limit going to be? Any thought about that?

Curt Brown: Well, we started in 2002 and wanted to start in 2001, but because 9/11 we got delayed a year. We started in 2002 and the class has grown and we’ve had some modifications over the years, we gone from a stock class of just L-39 aircraft, kind of like an “I rock” race. To get more people involved we opened it up to other air frames and in 2007 we opened it up to a number…. and that’s when we had our accident. It had nothing to do with the class of airframes, it was one of those Reno racing accidents, but we kind of took a step back in answer to safety to make sure we were doing everything right. So we limited the class to a couple three aircraft, a 29, 39 and a Fuga. And this year we opened it up to the Vampire. He came to rookie school in June, and we did testing on the course, so now we have the Vampire. We’re hoping to expand that in the future. We were given one heat this year, next year we’ve been promised two heats so we’ll have a…  assuming we can provide the aircraft, which I think we can and the pilots obviously, we’ll have two heats, it will be like a Gold and Silver, with 8 airplanes in each heat. And I really do think jet racing is going be the future for the fast movers for RARA. Every time one of the Unlimited Class goes away, that’s one less that comes out to play each year. So hopefully we can do that. You said wonder where it’s going. Last year our speed limit on the course was 515 mph because of scatter distant, safety radii and all that stuff. Actually one race last year I went 517, that’s a race speed, not a qualifying speed, it’s a race speed limit. The fasted race speed ever at Reno – and a no body got too excited about that. But over the year we’ve been working to get the speed limits up.
And now we’ve done some recalculations on what altitude the fast movers fly and now we’ve got the speed up to 550. Yesterday our first race in the Jet class we had a race speed, I did a 515 – that’s just 2 mph slower that we did last year on our fasted race. A lot of it, for my aircraft, depends of the heat of the day, the hotter the day, the faster I can go without running into some limits.

Guy: Do you like it hotter? Do you want to keep pushing it and see how fast you can go or run as fast as you possibly can?

Curt Brown: Of course. I’m an aviator, a pilot. And you know what I used to do, I don’t know if you know my background (Space Shuttle); so I obviously like to do things that are a little bit on the edge, or the fringe. There will be a limit to the race course. Obviously we want to be safe, and the race course is so big and because of safety radii and things so we only can go so fast. We may be there, I don’t know. We want to keep working the airplanes and we just want to keep it safe. But we are the fasted motor sport in the word. People are always talking about cars, but the Reno Air Races are a motor sport and we are the fastest and the Jet pilots have to be the fastest.

Guy: Do you expect in qualifying that sometime in the next few years, we will see 600 mph? I don’t know how much it goes up incrementally every year.

Curt Brown: I think 550 may be our limit. Just because …If we had a different course and had different safety margins around the course, they we could maybe go faster. But a straight wing airplane you run into the safety concerns – not for the airplane or the pilot, but just that you’re going speeds and they worry about, like the Unlimited they have the exhaust stacks – sometimes with the vibration and heat they come off. So that’s what they worry about – pieces coming off. Jets are kind of neat because they’re made to go fast, so we don’t worry about pieces coming off, they were made to fly fast, but we still have to fit into the safety requirement.

Guy: How long have you been flying the Viper?

Curt Brown: This is the second year that I’ve actually flown the Viper in the races. We won last year, with it, first place and this year I’m flying it again.   Before that I flew Race 2 here and I’ve flown Race 5.

Guy: Can you mention how smooth the Jets are? I remember talking to Rob Vandem, who flew the sport class last year, about different classes and I was wondering about the ride, how smooth these things are – a Volkswagen to a Cadillac?

Curt Brown: That’s a very good point. It depends on the jet you’re in. The 39 is a faster speed aircraft – it was made to go faster from the factory. The wing loading is a term that we use for how much wing surface area you have verses the weighted aircraft. So if the wing loading is high, not to get too technical, then the aircraft rides smoother, because little bumps and turbulence doesn’t affect it because the wing loading is high.

The 29 is a much slower aircraft. It can fly in a pattern with a Cessna 172 or 150 and really not have any problems because it can go slow – it has a fat wing. But because of that, the wing loading on that airplane is really quite low. So flying around the race course in the 29 is…well, it’s a violet thing inside the cockpit. I’m not going to take… (Gesturing to the black elbow brace wrapped on his left fore arm to his elbow) but I have bruises all over my elbows from hitting inside the cockpit from the bumps. So its violent, I mean it’s not out of control, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just violent, it’s not a smooth ride because we’re going at the limit of the airframe wing type. So when you hit a bump you really know you hit a bump. On these guys (pointing out the window to the L-39) when you hit a bump, it’s a bump, it’s no big deal. And that’s just the nature of the beast by flying a fat wing airplane – straight wing vs. flying a little bit of swept with a little bit narrower, less camber weight… (camber: the arching curve of an airfoil from the leading edge to the trailing edge, to arch slightly; curve convexly)
(…a small interruption – someone bursts into the trailer: “Did you not tell me start time is 3:20?” In response, Curt quickly quips, “That’s the time we’re starting engines – correct!” “Because race XX is telling me its 4:20! They’re going to miss the damn race!! I want to get them out on the line.” Curt pulls out his race schedule and confirms the day and time with his logistics coordinator.)
Curt: Sorry about that…

Guy: No that’s ok – I think the only other thing I wanted to ask you about is in the Jet Class. Are there concerns as far as air turbulence and air off the other planes that maybe some of the other classes don’t have?

Curt: It’s something that is a problem for every class. When you put heavier aircraft out there – basically the turbulence you create is really determined by how much lift that the wings are producing. So if you have a heavy aircraft and you’re pulling G’s the wings are producing a lot of lift. The Unlimited have trouble with… – Sea Furies produce a lot of junk, and you get a Mustang behind a Sea Fury and it will roll you upside down in a heartbeat – you have to be careful. So it’s something that we deal with in every class. The Unlimited Class, because they are heavier than the Bi-planes or the Sports or the Formulas, they have more trouble. We’re a little bit heavier than the Unlimited but we have controls that are made better, we have more roll capability than say the Mustangs that have clipped wings. So it’s a trade off, each class has their problems with that. The big thing is you have to know where not to fly – you know not to get in a certain area because that stuff is always there.

Guy: Is it more fun to race out here or to be on the shuttle?

Curt: (He rubs his hands together and his eyes sparkle…) Well, I have more fun here because it’s me. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but it’s me and the airplane. I give NASA and all the folks credit – we’re just the tip of the spear or the arrow, we just ride up in the vehicle. There are a lot of engineers and a lot of really smart, dedicated folks that make all that happen. We just get the privilege of being on the vehicle to go up in space. I couldn’t do that by myself– no way. But out here you know, it’s just me and the plane out on the course. And obviously I have a great ground crew getting me ready to go. But once I take off, I don’t have mission control trying to help me, I have me trying to help me. To me it’s more rewarding. And out here in Reno it’s kind of like an inside joke with pilots. We get to do things that are totally way illegal anywhere else in the world at any other time. But out here we can really go fast, close to the ground have fun with other airplanes. Even if we blow a motor up, the FAA doesn’t care, we just pop up, we land. You can’t do that anywhere else. I wish we had more courses around the country to race, I really, really do. Unfortunately we don’t, maybe some time in the future we’ll have another venue. Right now it’s Reno and we want Reno to stay and continue. Forty-six years, I want to be here 46 more years you know – we’ll see.

Guy: Well great. I really appreciate your taking the time.

Curt: I’ll get on my knees and beg – If you can get the Jet pilots any help – you know. We are the fast class and we are the future.

By the way, we are dedicating this year, and may do it in the future, to raising money for The Cancer Connection. Its counseling, web and telephone based, all across the country you can get a hold of these folks, for those who are diagnosed with cancer. Patients are hit with so many overwhelming things that you never thought you’d have to deal with. Patients deal with specific counselors and people that have gone through the same issues and they can help, counsel and take care of you and help you make those right decisions you have to make.

So we’re actually raffling off a ride and I’ll be taking whoever wins the raffle up on Saturday and giving them a ride in a race airplane, not on the course obviously, but up around and show them what it’s like to be up in a jet. It’s a really good cause and if you can help us on that we love to do that. I think some of the bigger media is coming out; FOX so to speak, national news.

I’d like to introduce you to Pip, she’s the one who organized it. She’s a…, I’ll probably get the wrong so I need to check…, a 17 year cancer survivor. She’s a tough lady. She has the best attitude in the whole world. I mean I get down for whatever reason, and Pip, I don’t know how she does it, but she’s always wide open and up. I’ll be glad to introduce you to her. She’s a sweetheart. I’ll take you out to meet her.

Thanks so much for coming out to talk to us; we’ll be racing all week. I mean we don’t have Stevie Hinton’s story – I used to fly Strega before Stevie, and I wish him the best of luck and he’s a really, really good guy and that’s a great story. If you get a chance after him, come on down to us, we’ll try to give you some story.

Guy: Hey, the fastest speed ever in 46 years is a pretty good story too!

Curt: We’re trying to do better!

With the interview over, we all exit the trailer and are introduced to the lovely Pip and learn about her organization, The Cancer Connection, and all the wonderful things she’s initiated.

So there you have it – a space shuttle pilot just out having some fun, making a difference by supporting The Cancer Connection and spreading the word that flying in Reno truly is the fastest Motor Sport in the world! Ahh, what a life!

Think we’ll witness a new record in 2010? Well, we all have to wait and see what the talented pilots can do with these lean and oh-so-fast flying machines.

Until then, here’s to the fastest class~
God’s Speed and God Bless Jet Racers!

Kimberley West
WarBirdBabe

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