RV Air Racing – By John Kelsall

I’ve been Air Racing now for four years and every year it gets better!

I got hooked when I attended an Air Racing school which I saw advertised in one  of the many aviation magazines I read cover to cover every month. I had some 100 hours on my  RV6 and I’d done all the usual fly-ins and £50 hamburger runs. And I had now  found something else to do with the aircraft I had spent three years building.

The Air Racing school was an introductory one-day course in Handicapped Air  Racing.  This was  held in the “Squadron”, a wartime Nissen hut on the edge of  North Weald airfield so steeped in history that you could almost feel the likes  of Douglas Bader or Ginger Lacey sitting next to you.

I’d always been fascinated by the stories of the 1930s air races such as the  Schneider Trophy and the bearing that those aircraft, particularly the  Supermarine S6b were to have on the outcome of World War II.  I had also long  held a desire to at least see Air Racing in its modern form. The Air Racing  School was to be run by Roger Hayes of Skysport and Geoff Boot an aviation  writer and Air Race enthusiast.  The day was extremely informative and when I  saw the exciting videos of earlier Kings Cup Races I was hooked!  My enthusiasm  sparked, I had to have a go at this game for which I had the ideal aircraft in  G-KELL, the Vans RV6.


G-KELL, a VANS RV 6, built and raced by John Kelsall

The basic requirement to go Handicapped Air Racing is to have 100 hours  P1, and an aircraft, which will fly at more than 100 mph.  There are all types  from Condors through Slingsbys to Beech Barons and Cessna 340s.  Since I started  racing the use of GPS as a tracking device has been introduced to both ascertain  the flat-out speed of the aircraft during practice and during the race to  provide a very accurate record of  both the aircraft’s speed and its track over  the ground.

The handicapper will take into account the weather and the wind on the day and  then give each racer an allotted take off time relative to the first aircraft  which is usually the slowest.  If the handicappers have got their maths right  and each pilot flies a perfect race then all aircraft should cross the finish  line (usually on the airfield and in front of the crowd) together.  In reality  flight paths are not straight, aircraft climb and descend, and corners are cut  thus spreading the field over maybe a minute at the finish.

The actual course flown can be a short course of maybe 4 laps of 25 miles to  much longer international races.

Of course human nature being what it is people will try to “beat the  handicapper”. This may be tried by deliberately flying slow on the practice laps  or by flying a deliberately loose course. The application of something called  the 1% rule is designed to combat this and so if a pilot turns in a practice run  and then flies more that 1% faster than the average increase of the rest of the  field during the race he renders himself liable to disqualification. Other  things conspire to trip up the unwary race pilot and these can be anything from  cutting a turning point to getting lost

My first race meeting was at Leicester in June 1999.  It consisted of two races,  one on Saturday, and would you believe it, the Schneider Trophy Race on Sunday.   Practice was allowed on Saturday over a course, which consisted of four straight  legs per lap, each lap being 26 miles long, and four laps per race.  The turning  points are marked by a 6foot orange pyramid topped by a yellow windsock placed  in a field or roadside.  The idea is to fly the quickest, and, therefore,  shortest distance between these points.

After a check out ride by Robert Miller (one of only three check pilots),  I was pronounced fit to compete.  Having thoroughly studied the course, my  navigator Glynn and I flew the practice and tried to memorise the ground  features which would help us fly as straight a course as possible to each of the  turning point markers.  We also tried to asses what effect the strong southerly  wind would have on our headings.

The race time arrived and we had been allotted a take off some 18 minutes  after the slowest aircraft in the race, a Cessna 140 and five minutes before a  trio of Beech Barons.  Disaster struck when we found ourselves alongside and too  far to the left of the first turning point marker.  Since it is unsafe to orbit  and regain the turning point marker once it is missed, one may as well drop out  of the race or finish for fun.  We continued to hopefully gain some experience  for the Schneider Race on Sunday.  We were duly eliminated for missing the first  marker and warned that this would affect the result of the Schneider should we  do well tomorrow.

Glynn was unable to attend for the Schneider so I asked the race organisers if  they could provide me with another “pair of eyes” for safety.  I was fortunate  to be accompanied by a young lady called Safaya , a highly experienced race  pilot who gave me some very helpful tips.  The race started and we were off and  running.  Safaya was on my case immediately: “Don’t climb too steeply”, “You’re  off track by 2 degrees left”, “Don’t descend”, I think I learned more in the 40  minutes it took to fly that race than I would have done in the next years  racing.  She kept my flying consistent and accurate and on the last two legs I  overtook eight aircraft to cross the line at  100′ agl at 200 mph in FRONT of  everyone else.  I never expected that we would do quite so well and it was good  to be congratulated even if it was to be short lived.

The handicappers cut our elation short<strong> </strong>by applying the infamous 1% rule  which states that if one’s performance is better on the Sunday than it was on  the Saturday by more than 1% of the average field improvement then you are  liable to be disqualified. My average speed on Saturday was 167 mph and on  Sunday 176 mph – 105%!

I don’t have a sideboard big enough for the Schneider Trophy anyway but I was  grateful to Safaya and my new friends at the Royal Aero Club RRR for a great  experience.  I knew I’d be back for more.  And I was – this time at Abbeville in  France, in August.

I flew over from Netherthorpe on a Friday afternoon in very clear conditions to  arrive at Abbeville to find several other racers already there. The Royal  Aero Club Records Racing and Rally Association (who arrange all the  handicapped air racing) provided a bus to take us to our hotel.  The next  morning after a very enjoyable evening taking in the French hospitality the bus  collected us and  took us back to the airfield, after the renewal of old  acquaintances and lots of coffee, the pre-practice briefing was held.  Where the  course is described in detail and safety issues are discussed.  Then we were let  loose on the course to find the turning points among the golden fields of the  Somme.

The course is given on an ordnance survey map marked with a fine line  and consists of five legs, at Abbeville the airfield turn has only a shallow  angle between the two legs not the typical 80 -90 degree which racers round at   very steep angles of bank and pulling 3-4G , very spectacular,  all that was  needed over the airfield was a slight waggle of the wings to change on to the  new heading.

The practice over, it was time for the handicappers to do their  calculations and issue start times for the 13 aircraft in the race.  The first  to take off exactly on the hour  was a Condor, closely followed by a trio of  Beagle Pups.  Next came a Saab, a 172, a 182, a Robin and a Slingsby, before the  little RV6.  My time was 17 minutes and 44 seconds after the hour.  The only  aircraft behind me was a Beech Baron Twin G-DAFY that has a speed of 228 mph.

I watched the yellow Slingsby take off and keep very low along the  runway, a runway pounded in an earlier life by the tyres of countless  Messerschmitt 109s.  At last he climbed to clear a wood and to be at 500′ by the  time he reached the first turning point.  I saw his bright yellow wings flash in  the sun as he banked steeply to take up the second leg.  My attention turned to  the race officials and to the clerk of the course at my wingtip with his index  finger up in my direction indicating one minute to go.

A quick mag check, apply carb heat, on and off, I start to build revs slowly  when the starting flag is raised there are 10 seconds to go I apply full power  and hold hard on the brakes.  The flag drops,  brakes off.  I concentrate on  keeping the nose in a straight line down the runway and gently let the tail  lift.  Still concentrating on keeping her straight I feel the vibration from the  well-worn runway on the wheels disappear.  We are airborne!    Now the  concentration really begins – don’t climb too quickly as this costs airspeed.  I  try to follow the lead given to me by Robert Miller in the Slingsby and arrive  at the first turn at around 500′.

I’ve made mental notes during the practice as to where to find the turning point  flags in relationship to the roads and woods immediately before I get to the  turning point.  The first one is after the big wood and just to the left of a  small spinney at the edge of a field.  There it is and I’m still too low!  This  means lost energy as the turning point marshals will make note that I’m not at a  minimum height when I turn, and if I am too low I could be penalised.

I let the turning point and the marshals, who I can clearly see slide down the  port edge of my engine cowl. When they pass under the leading edge of the port  wing I apply 70 degrees of bank, pause for only a second and pull in the G.  I  look through the canopy and find the rollout point which I’d established in  practice, and roll out as smoothly as possible onto track.  The next leg is  relatively easy as the track follows the edge of a long wood and my next turn is  easily found at the near end of a long yellow field.  Turbulence is quite severe  and I tighten my harness still more to enable me to keep as close a control as  possible on my height and course.

I manage a level efficient turn at the next turning point, all the time keeping  a good look out for other aircraft.  By now I have started overtaking the  aircraft which took off first and I remember that I have to pass some of them  again to beat them.  The last leg of the first lap and I pass overhead the  airfield and only have to make a slight alteration to course as the last and  first legs are almost in line with each other.

The race continues and the engine purrs smoothly on.  Full revs all the way  round.  I am assured that these Lycomings can easily take 2700 rpm all day, and  indeed it does.  The RV6 with 160 HP 0-320 is an ideal combination for this type of flying as at full throttle the speed in level flight remains just below the  yellow arc, so I don’t have to worry about Vne busting. As I come on to the  penultimate leg of the last lap I start to see lots of  aircraft in front of me and caution is the watchword.  See and avoid!  It is the  responsibility of the overtaking pilot to ensure safety and it is vitally  important to stay level in a steep turn when there may be five aircraft turning  round the same point at once.

I passed four aircraft on that leg, and on the final leg, the run-in to the  airfield and finish line, I see the Beagle Pup of Geoff Boot and the Slingsby of  Robert Miller in front.  And I was going well.

As the trees on the edge of the airfield approached I passed the Pup, and the  Slingsby slid underneath as well.  I was in front.  I suddenly thought of the  dreaded 1% rule but remembered that it didn’t apply to this race.  Had I really  won? I landed and waited.  People congratulated me and after maybe half an hour when  all the turning point marshals had returned to the office with their  observations the results were posted.  I really had won, and legally too.

The race was over.  I must have lost half a stone in the 40 minutes or so it  took me to complete the 100-mile course, after all it’s akin to flying under the  hot sun in a greenhouse. The adrenaline subsided and we relaxed to get ready for  the wonderful social event that is also a major part of air racing.

There was a wonderful dinner that night hosted by the Somme Flying Club and I  cannot praise the welcome we received too highly.  I got to bed around 2.30 am.

Sunday was the Battle of Britain Trophy, aptly raced for here at Abbeville since  it was formerly the home of the ‘Abbeville Boys’, a famous Me 109 fighter group  during the Battle of Britain.

The race briefing was at 11.30 so I spent the time cleaning all the bugs off G-KELL  and polishing the draggy bits. The race was to be over the same course so there  was no practice and we were to start at 13.30 local.  I was given a 39 second  later start time which when I worked it out was later by some 15 seconds than  the Slingsby.  Ah well, c’est la vie.  The handicappers rule OK! I’m assured that they are human.  It is with no disrespect to the worlds great  religions that one turns to the subject of handicapping.  The Lord giveth and  the Lord taketh away.  It’s much the same with handicappers.  Should they err in  your favour, rejoice, if not persevere, they will get it right eventually.

Today my friend Phil was acting as my navigator and film crew all rolled into  one.  He was a little apprehensive and it took him well into the second lap to  settle his nerves, after all the steep turns aren’t that aerobatic, are they?   We again flew a really tight race without clipping any corners and keeping as  straight as possible  but the best we could manage was seventh.  Still it was a  very exhilarating experience and one which Phil thoroughly enjoyed.

The French really enjoy their flying and turned out in their hundreds to watch.   It made us feel quite important to taxy back past waving crowds.  The trophies  were presented and I wished I’d had a bottle of champagne to spray over the  assembled enthusiasts.  Still, I suppose I wouldn’t want to fly home all sticky.

What an enjoyable weekend.  From Friday afternoon to Sunday teatime I’d flown  some 61/2 hours, some relaxing, some very testing, but all of it enjoyable. Roll  on the next race at Shobdon.

That had been my first experience of Air Racing and the hook is still firmly  embedded if fact since then I have analysed what I needed to try to improve my  chances still further. I realised that the little RV6 had a fixed pitch prop  which was a limiting factor so explored the possibility of fitting a Constant  speed Propeller which would improve acceleration and therefore reduce the time  lost due to getting back up to speed after a tight turn.

In the event I found that option a non-starter and since the new RV7 had  recently been introduced, an aircraft which would easily accommodate a 200hp  Lycoming I decided to build an entirely new aircraft and set off to Shawbury to  view the RAF Bulldogs which the MOD were about to dispose of in an auction.

I managed to find a Bulldog which had a time expired airframe but an engine  which was zeroed only 600 hour ago. The price was right and I became the proud  owner of another aircraft.

Because the airframe had exceeded 114 on its fatigue index the good old CAA  would not grant a permit to transit the aircraft back to Netherthorpe to take it  to pieces. In the end I enlisted the help of a licensed engineer and we spent  the day at Shawbury removing all the useful parts from the Bulldog to use on the  new RV7 build. I managed to find buyer for the remains of the airframe and it  made a good value engine and set of instruments.

The new Van’s kit is really superb its just like a big Meccano kit every rivet  hole is pre-punched on a Computer controlled punching machine with spot-on  accuracy. When the parts are assembled the airframe is straight true and square  right out of the box! The kit arrived and I started building, since I had already built one RV I could  easily recognise the parts and get into it quickly. I continued racing the RV6  and had a relatively successful year finishing in the upper half of the field  with some consistency. By August I had found a buyer for the RV6 and he kindly  allowed me to finish the season by competing in the Kings Cup at Leicester. I  finished 4th. The RV6 was duly delivered to Shoreham its new home and  I said goodbye to the best aircraft I had ever flown. A sad day!

The build continued with renewed vigour, I now had a target, to get finished  before the new season started in May 2003. I decided that I would attempt the  paint job myself as my usual paint wizard was about to become a father and  Hospital visits are more important that painting an RV.

As it happened I took advice from an autobody re-finisher and used good quality  materials and the magic ingredient, a measuring stick and the paint job came out  really well.

May came and went and I stepped up the pace the first flight took place on June  13th and was followed by a strict test regime as it was the first one  of type in the UK. Eventually I was ready a week after the Schneider!

My first weekend was at Carlisle and what a weekend, I managed a first place on  both the Saturday and Sunday. The RV7 had arrived!

The RV7 is an ideal aircraft with which to race Handicapped air races and the  use of a constant speed prop has made take-off and acceleration out of a corner  a dream and the speed (201.8mph) is useful as it is easy to keep straight and  turns very tight. As yet it is the only RV racing but hopefully more of the  growing British RV fleet will take up the gauntlet. There is some impressive  silverware to be won not least for the best performance in a homebuilt aircraft.

I’m still enjoying my flying. The RV7 is running really well and the  racing is  great fun. The social side is brilliant! With a dinner on most Saturday nights.  The Royal Aero Club make newcomers very welcome and all help is given to anyone  who cares to turn up.

Next season looks set to be a cracker with races taking place at venues such as  Abbeville The Isle of Mann, the Isle of Wight, Goodwood, Compton Abbas, Shobdon  and Alderney.

If your interested why not visit the Air racing website at www.airraceuk.com or call the air race  secretary Mrs.Judy Hanson.

And if you do come remember the Air Racers old adage ‘Fly fast, Fly low Turn  Left’;

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