Reno Air Races 2015


I live in Sacramento, California and am much blessed to be only two and half hours from Reno, Nevada.  I am blessed because it is a short (and beautiful) trip from where I live to reach the Reno Air Races.  I don’t go every year, I try to pace myself, but for me it is a day completely dedicated to enjoying all things aviation.  Part of the enjoyment is knowing that when I am there I am surrounded by people with the same interest.

The first air race in the United States was held in Dominguez Field in  Los Angeles, California in 1910.  Pilots Roy Knabenshue and Charles Willard, picked Southern California for their winter aerial demonstrations base and persuaded railroad magnate Henry Huntington to pledge $50,000 for the event.  43 planes entered , 16 showed up.  My grandfather lived in Los Angeles at that time and was 12 years old.  When I was growing up he told me that he used to sell ice cream at airshows.  I am pretty sure he was there.


In 1921 the United States instituted National Air Meets which eventually became the National Air Races.  These races lasted until 1949.  The Cleveland Air Races were considered the marquee event in the circuit.1929 Cleve

cleaveland air races

In 1964, Bill Stead, a Nevada rancher and pilot organized the first Reno Air Races at a small dirt strip called the Sky Ranch located between Sparks, Nevada and Pyramid Lake.  It eventually moved to the Reno Stead Airport and has been there ever since.

If you want to get a sense of how simple this early event was take a look at the opening few minutes of this video.

For me the Reno Air show started with a two hour drive in the dark over the top of Donner Summit in the dark.  Considering Sacramento is at 0 Elevation and Donner Summit is at 7,000 feet, it is a long drive up the hill and a hurtling coast down the hill into the town of Truckee.  In daytime the summit is majestic.


I usually get there about a half hour before the gate opens ( around 6:30 am) but I am never first in line.  There are twenty or thirty people already in line when I got there with their folding chairs, blankets and packed lunches, stomping their feet trying to stay warm. It’s about 45 degrees and I am wondering why I only brought a light jacket.  Most of them know each other and they make small talk (all aviation) while they wait for the sun to come up and the gates to open. The gentleman next to me drove in from Colorado and attends every day of the event.  He has a matching Reno Air Show hat, jacket, shirt and wristwatch.  Another women brags about being the first women in the line and greets friends and strangers alike as they arrive.  The gates open and the small talk stops, everyone walks in quickly to set up their chairs, smiling from ear to ear.

The sights and sounds are always entertaining.  Combustion engines sputter and pop in the background while vendors set up their merchandise.   There are plenty of handsome aircraft on display.  This year they had a number of restored Japanese planes because of a Pearl Harbor commemorative flight.  There was also an immaculately restored B-25 with Russian markings because in its history it was sold to Russia and eventually brought back to the states and restored.


To be honest it is the little things that catch my eye.  The stuffed bear in a planes cowling, the leather jacket and pilots goggles sitting on a planes wings, the beautiful leather interiors of some of the classic restored aircraft  (and some interesting decorations on a few of the planes).


The heart and soul of the Reno Air Races are the races themselves.  If you buy a pit pass you can wander through the pit areas.  Families and sponsors have set up large tents and shade structures anchored by large trailers.  They decorate their pit areas with t-shirts and caps with logos for their planes.  As heats come up, planes are towed out to the airfield to form up and are returned after their heat.  You can hear the CB radios broadcasting the comms between the pace planes and race controllers as the heats are launched. Mechanics make final adjustments to the engines to get them ready for their races. Sometimes the pace is frantic if they need to make last minute repairs.  Most of them are more than happy to talk about their planes and what they are doing.   When race time approaches the tents are bustling with people.  The picture below with folding chairs under the blue tarp is from the “Sawbones” website.  During races the roof of their trailer was full of people cheering their pilot on.

Pic6The races themselves are fascinating.  There are a number of classes of aircraft that race from ultralight biplanes to heavily modified classic aircraft.  After the planes have taken off, a pace plane takes the flyers outside the course and gets them lined up for the race.  Once released they come roaring in from the south over the bleachers and the race starts.  Each class runs a slightly different course ( see below) and do a series of laps around pylons depending on the size and class of plane.  My brother-in-law came along this year since he lives near Reno.  He has a reputation for being willing to ask strangers questions about what they do and today was no exception.  We had had worked our way over to the pit area and were watching the last heat of the day for the Unlimited Class in front of the “Sawbones” pit area.  He turned around in the middle of the race and asked some folks in the pit a number of questions to understand what was at stake for these racing teams.

What is your strategy?…..To survive until Sunday! Other planes are faster than ours, head to head we would get beat every time,  so you just try to hold your position in each qualifying heat.  You push hard on Saturday to try and get the best field position you can.  On Sunday you do your best and keep your fingers crossed in hopes that the bigger more customized planes have a bad day or engine problems so you can move up in the standings when they fall back.  

How many events do your race a year?….Only one, this is it.  It is the only remaining Air Race event in the country.

What are the rules in the Unlimited Class?….Simple, there are only three rules. First, the plane can weigh no more than 6,000 pounds.  Second it  must have a propeller.  Third it must have a combustion engine with pistons.  That’s it!

Is this a money making venture?….On a good year it is a break-even venture, most years it loses money.   You have to have sponsors who are passionate about aviation and a large group of volunteers who work all year ( for free) to get to this one event.


After the final heat, we went back to pick up our gear and head to the car.  The chatter among the people on the sidewalk was all about planes and engines and things they saw during the event.  I suppose what drew people to the air races in Los Angeles in 1910, Cleveland in 1929 and Reno in 2015 have not changed too much.  The fascination with flight has been with us since the Wright Brothers proved it could be done back in 1903.

I take a slightly different route home that takes me right by the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, making for some pretty stunning views.  I pull out to take a few more pictures of the scenery before I head home.

I can tell I am already looking forward to attending next time!










Pictures to go with the words….

I am not an accomplished artist, or a writer or a photographer…but my theory with Rupp’s Skizzenbuch is that neither was he… so how bad can I do?

If the exhibits in his sketchbook connect emotionally and are immersive than I think the project will be successful.   I know where I am going on the writing and sketching but have struggled a bit with the photography.  This is not the History Channel, I don’t have an extensive historical archive to pull from and I don’t want to find old images and “pretend” they are from Bruno Stachel’s archive.  This exhibits are simulations of reality and the photo’s should be simulations as well.

I am experimenting using the mission builder in Rise of Flight as a way to model scenes and create images that I can use both as a resource for sketching and possible “faux” photographs.  Made some good progress this weekend and the results look promising.

Here is the “inside the cockpit” view looking at the Beauvin Aerodrome that I started with.

1 -Orig Cockpit

I made a second screen shot from outside the aircraft.  Keep in mind that the mission builder has limitations, so some things in this image are just wrong for the storyline.  The river is too wide. Too many buildings at the Aerodrome.  No north / south road following the train track. Distracting textures on the fields southeast of the Aerodrome.

2 -Orig Field

I took this image into Photoshop Elements and modified the image to clean it up.  I made the river narrow and more natural.  I brushed out the textures at the Aerodrome field.  I added the north / south road and adjusted the direction of the fields on the horizon to align with the road.  Most of it involved using the cloning tool and “painting” out offending objects or textures.  I also spliced out the sky and added my own photograph of a cloudy morning in Sacramento.  Not perfect, but an interesting experiment.  The river was the most successful.

3 -Field View Edited

Now the fun part….I wanted to be able to compose the Aerodrome image dramatically inside the cockpit and not be limited by whatever screenshot I could get in the game environment.   I also wanted the cockpit to be more in silhouette, so I created a “green screen” background, cropping out the Aerodrome.  It makes a very crisp image to play with.

4 - Cockpit No land

Now the cockpit and the Aerodrome are on different layers and can be rotated around and tuned separately.

5- Close to final

It makes a nice image, the environment is more accurate with the story line and the view is dynamic.  But it still looks like a screenshot from a flight sim.

Researched online for techniques to make vintage photos from current era photos in Photoshop Elements.  I used multiple techniques to blurr the image, add a “glow” to the foreground objects, fade the edges and found a nice bordered vintage photo paper to place the image on top off.

6-TestVintage Pic

Now clearly I am not fooling anyone.  This does not duplicate the authenticity of a vintage photograph from the 1900’s.  In the end I think it’s better that it doesn’t.  The goal is to build up simulated “authentic” images that connect the dots in the story line.  I hope to be able to collage images from multiple resources.  In the image below, you get a sense how rich this can be when it is all pulled together.

Now all I need is a smoldering cigar and a shot of scotch…will work on that for next time!

7-Final Book


Filming “On Location” with The Blue Max Project

When a film director is researching his next big film one of the key tasks is hunting for the right location to film at.  If the movie is based on a book or a historical event, the challenge is convincing movie-goers that they “got it right”  by finding the perfect location.

On a humbler scale, I face the same challenge with Rupp’s Skizzenbuch.  Fan’s of Jack Hunter’s novel  “The Blue Max” have their own mental image of what the story looks like.   Rupp fills his skizzenbuch with sketches and photographs and I have to create images that are believable to a reader of the novel.

You use the tools you have and one tool I have is the Rise of Flight (ROF) mission builder from 777’s fine World War I flight sim.  The mission builder is based on historically accurate maps from The Great War.   You can customize the environment by choosing locations, setting the  weather and placing objects on the map.  When you’re done, you can fly the sim in the setting you helped create. I thought I would send my virtual “Production Crew” into the flight sim to see how close I could get to recreating Bruno Stachel’s first Aerodrome, Jasta 77 located at Beauvin.

We started with the game map.  At the beginning of the book Oberleutnant Kettering orients the new officer Bruno Stachel on the location of the various Jastas.  His description is detailed enough that we were able to find most of the aerodromes on the ROF map.   Bruno’s home base was located next to a small farm village called Beauvin.  This is a fictional aerodrome so we used some artistic freedom on its location and configuration.  The quotes on the map are from the novel.


The Production Crew scouted the  3D map in their virtual helicopter looking for an appropriate location to build the Aerodrome.   We were looking for an intersection of a north-south railroad with an east-west road near a river.  We found just what we were looking for and sent down the Stage Crew  to start constructing the village.  There are limitations of course.   My Creative Director was not happy with some of the compromises ( he is a kind of fussy person)…. the river was a little large, the north-south train track was there, but not the north-south road, a few too many buildings at the Aerodrome.  My Technical Director was not concerned at all.  He knew the Special Effects Team could clean that up in post-production.  Here is the map with quotes from the novel’s descriptions that it is based on.

2-Whole Base_c

One of the challenges in making films about WWI aviation is getting functional aircraft that are historically accurate.  In the Sim World my Technical Director was very happy since we have unlimited aircraft that fly well and are wonderfully rendered.  You can also design your own skins for the aircraft and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my squadmate WWDubya who designed the skin on the DFW in the videos below.  Jasta 77 is described as having a “paper strength” of eighteen with twelve active pilots.  We stocked the aerodrome with eighteen aircraft made up of Pfalz’s,  Albatros fighters and a few DFW two seaters for recon and bombing assignments.


The wonderful thing about a 3D model is you can zoom around to any location and take screenshots from different vantage points.  When an Architect designs a building mentally he or she tends to have an image of the design in thier head, likely from a few vantage points. When you have a 3D model you can explore to find views you never considered.  There are a number of locations at this site that are key to the story line of “The Blue Max”.  The bridge where Stachel saves a school girl, the row of poplar trees to the south of the aerodrome that Stachel crashes through, the Officers Mess in the old house on the main street… and most importantly the abandoned factory on the west end of town where Rupp witnesses Stachel’s cruel murder of Von Klugerman when he forces his plane into the side of the chimney.  I sent the Sketch Artists down to walk the streets and start story boarding for the Skizzenbuch.  They were very pleased and where careful not to fall into the river when they had too much to drink ( perhaps the Officer’s Mess was bit too accurately modelled!).


No film production is complete without some drama and we had our share.  It culminated with the Creative Director (CD) and Technical Director (TD) attempting to fly a circuit around the town we had just created to make a short video for the Studio Execs.   The CD was doing the filming and the TD was the pilot so it sounded like a perfect pairing right? It was a classic conflict of artistic vision versus practical reality.  If you notice in the video the wind sock is almost completely horizontal. The mission builder ( me ) got a little out of hand with the wind modelling and it was whipping along at 4 meter’s per second going from west to east.  This is historically accurate ( but perhaps a tad too strong)  as the Entente flyers fought the wind on the way back from their flights into Germany.

The CD insisted that they fly due south and come back over the Aerodrome heading north for landing.  He thought it would be the best view for filming.  Considering the crosswind, the TD argued against it, but the CD insisted. In the first take-off attempt  that west wind lifted one wing up, forcing the other into the grass and they crashed.  Five tries, five crashes.  Finally the TD got the knack of leaning on the right rudder and tilting down on the right aileron to counter the tipping and managed to get air born.  Unfortunately the next four planes were destroyed in the landing..  By the ninth try the TD was fuming and we were losing daylight.  Thankfully the CD was knocked unconscious in the last failed landing and his Best Boy took over.  Calmer heads prevailed and the tenth try they took off heading east and landed into the wind heading west.


The take-off went well enough, but the Technical Director came in a bit hot for the landing. Put it away nicely in the hanger though (just short a few wings).

Finally on the 11th try as the sun set we got the video we were looking for (we will edit out that last rough part of the landing before we send it on to Hollywood).

Those Studio Exec’s are an impatient bunch so it is good we finished. Hopefully they will approve so the project can go into full production.