Racing Through
the Wild Blue Yonder


 Jet images:

2013 marks the 50th year of the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, and the qualifiers began making history of their own on September 9. Inspired by the Cleveland Air Races started in the 1920s, the Reno event has attracted millions of flying fans over the years.

And in a celebrated and prestigious air race, Jon Sharp is the most celebrated pilot in its history. Winning 15 championships (the most by far), he knows firsthand about airplane design and the thrill of the competition.

“There have been many important styles we used,” Sharp says. “The canopy close to hinging, everything curved. Routing inlets and outlets and getting everything to work correctly. Designing a race plane is like designing a race car. Everything is a tradeoff but you don’t want to tradeoff speed and performance.”

Top Speed

From the engine standpoint, a team is looking for top speed that can handle the stress of multiple gravities (G’s). “A load without being heavy,” he says. “Sometimes it’s where you should be able to pile six Suburbans on top of an airplane to have it survive and not break.”

The Nemesis NXT prototype at the Mojave Airport. Image: Alan Radecki / Wikimedia Commons 

Another key is wingspan sizing optimization. He remembers his famed Nemesis, now displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It was built out of 100% carbon fiber. “The only metal in that airplane was the motor mount landing gear,” he recalls.

A huge challenge can be the sport division for the National Championship Air Races, requiring the craft to be a kit-built plane. “With that, we had to contend with whether someone could build it and assemble it in their garage and be structurally sound for them,” he says. “Imagine it’s like a model in your bedroom but only bigger, and then you can get in that thing and fly away!”

There are six different classes of planes in the Reno Air Race. As explained on the Championship’s site, they are:

  1. Sport
  2. Biplane
  3. Formula One, all with a Continental O-200 engine sport, reaching 250 mph
  4. T-6, stock aircraft
  5. Jet
  6. Unlimited, featuring modified WWII fighters reaching speeds close to 500 mph




In the Pilot’s Seat

So what is it like to be in a race? “It’s eight airplanes up there at the same time, just like car racing but a boatload faster,” he says. “And it’s a year’s worth of work for five or six flights during race week that were sheer terror and that were ten minutes each.” Unlike driving a car on pavement, this course isn’t well defined, he says. “What we have in air racing is pylons that mark the course but it’s infinite how far out you can go,” he says. “You can pass outside or above or both but not inside or under.”

Announcing his retirement two years ago, Sharp compares his engineers to another mode of transportation. “A racing team is really like a bicycle wheel. The engineers and all the other contributors are important spokes in it. Take one out, and you’ll find it goes flat.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

A racing team is really like a bicycle wheel. The engineers and all the other contributors are important spokes in it.

Jon Sharp, champion aviator


September 2013

by Eric Butterman,