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The 2017 Reno Chronicle - by Tom Lymburn

Tom Lymburn, famed Sawbones and aviation historian, shares his stories direct from the Reno National Championship Air Races in this column. If you weren't able to join us in Reno, or if you're here and just want a different perspective, read on:

Friday, Sept 16

Moment #1

“That engine - I flew missions of 10 to 12 hours behind it.  Hell, we’d run out of oil before we ran out of gas.

Captain Gus Gudmunson, true Navy, had flown the Douglas Skyraider on the beginning end of his naval aviation career - in the end he flew all the way up to the F-14, which he didn’t think much of.  A Minneapolis native, he served part of his time at NAS Minneapolis.  Not bad for a Minnesota kid.  Now living in Oklahoma City and a Director in the Navy League, Gus counted off the aircraft he had flown.  

“From the AD I went to the A-4, another Ed Heineman design.  I also flew the A-7 in Viet Nam.  It had a much heavier bomb load than the A-4.”

Flight instructor tours led to flying dissimilar air combat in the F-16 and the F-14.

“Now the F-14 was not much of a dogfighter,” he commented.  “It was too big and too slow in a turn.  I flew RO in addition to front seat.”

“And the F-16?”

“A close in knife fighter.  You could really tangle with that.”

Gus looked fondly at Sawbones’ R-3350 engine.

“Still, you know, there was something about the simplicity of the Skyraider.  Big load, long range, and a great engine.  That old 3350 - we trusted it.”

Moment #2

The military static display included the venerable Lockheed C-130.  This example was from the Nevada ANG, based at Reno-Tahoe International.  Near the Herkys’ nose were two pilots, both female.  They squinted in the sun and tried not to look bored as most the spectators were grouped around the F-15C from the Oregon ANG or watching the A-10A and AV-8B preparations.

“May I ask you a question?” I smiled.

The red head with a short pony tail, grinned back and said, “Sure.”

“When our 737 got in from Denver, I saw a half dozen C-130s from the window.  Two had big orange numbers on the nose and tail.  Are they fire bombers?”

“Yes, we’ve been cross trained to deliver fire retardant.  The Wyoming Guard has done it for years, but the scope of this year’s fires meant more need for heavy capacity.”

“Have you been deployed to fires?”

“We tanked in Oregon When the the need for heavy tankers became too great.  The local assets couldn’t handle it.”

“I’ve known tanker operators and even some crews.  It’s dangerous work.  Thank dpi for saving lives.”

I gave each of the pilots a Sawbones sticker and invited them to visit our pit.  The quieter pilot gave me a big smile and said, “That’s what the Guard is for.”

Moment #3

I’d been looking for a copy of Peter Bowers’ Curtiss Aircraft 1907 to 1947 for years.  Bowers, a Boeing engineer, aviation historian, and writer had designed the Fly Baby homebuilt that was able to be built as both a monoplane and biplane.

Past the grandstands, just before the jet pits, I spotted a used book dealer.  Ever a sucker for a book store, I scanned the rows of aviation books - Osprey, flight manuals - and on a rolling metal cart, a display of the classic British Putnam series..

I’ve got plenty of Putnams, as the British know how to do aircraft reference books right, and bingo!  There it was, Bowers’ Curtiss book wearing a plastic protective dust jacket, looking nearly new.

Now, I’d checked out sources for the Curtiss many times.  It’s been on my wish list for over 20 years.  With some trepidation, I took the volume off the shelf to check the price.  Other places, the sticker shock was enough to induce cardiac arrest.  Too bloody much.  

The cover was good, the paper edges showed some use, Hmmm…

Come on Tom, be brave, open the cover, and look at the price.  You can only be disappointed again and put it back.

$45.00!  Holy smokes (actually stronger words).  $45.00.  Yes, that was the real price.  Damn.  

I brought the book to the skinny guy with an apron.

“Found something?”

“You bet, I’ve been looking for this volume for over 20 years.”

“Glad we could help.  Take it over to the young lady in the corner, behind the table.”

The “young” lady behind the table in the corner was gray haired, probably well past 70, with a great smile.

“Got a good one?” she beamed.

“Yup.  These Putnams are great.  I’ve been trying to find the Bowers for years.”

“All’s good then.”

She swiped my card,  “Here, sign in the box.”

I did as directed, never able to write legibly on a screen.  Transaction done, treasured book in a thin plastic bag, awkwardly shoehorned into my camera bag, I headed back to the pit.  On the way I ran into John Bormus, T-6 driver and Sawbones sponsor.

“Been shopping?”

“Only one thing.”

“You’re that disciplined?”

“No, but I found a book I’d been hunting for for years.  Every other time I’ve found it, the cost was too much since it’s been long out of print.

“What did you pay?”


“That’s good?”

“The lowest price I’ve ever seen before was over $400.00.”

“Success,” John laughed.

Moment #4

Hi, Kate.  Ross is mostly behaving!

Thursday, Sept 14

History note:  15 September is celebrated in the UK at Battle of Britain Day.  In an epic battle over London, RAF Fighter Command dealt the Luftwaffe a decisive blow, proving that the British lion still had teeth.  Under the brilliant leadership of Hugh Dowding and Keith Park, RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes turned back the German’s Heinkels, Junkers, and Dorniers.  Without this great 1940 victory, the world might have been a vastly different place.

Flashback:  Low, cutting the corner, the Thrush swung in over the corn field and settled, wheels barely above the runway grass and let loose a trail of smoke from its starboard exhaust.  The Battle Lake crowd, gathered to honor crop duster, aircraft restorer, and air racer, Gerry Beck, oohed and ached as the turboprop Ayres swept past the hangars and the flatbed trailer where I was announcing.  It pulled a tight turn to port and climbed steeply heading west.  The smoke from the Thrush lingered over the runway, then dissipated in the light wind.

Over a 26 year period of announcing air shows, I’ve called over 200 different types of aircraft - firebombers and crop dusters included.  I’ve always believed in highlighting the benefits of general aviation.

“Which airplane are you with?” I asked.  He wore a T-6 cap.

“Oh, I’m helping with the Legends Flight today, but I do have a T-6.”

“Ever think of racing it?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.  Here,” he pulled out his cell phone.  “I’ve got a picture of it here.”

‘Great paint job!”

“Thanks.  It gives me something to do when I’m not crop dusting.”

His business card advertised Red Willow Aviation in McCook, Nebraska, once the site of a well known Army Air Corps field.

“I’m Griff,” he offered his hand.

“Tom, with Sawbones out of Minneapolis.  Just over a week ago I announced a memorial air show to Gerry Beck.  One of the features was an Ayres Thrush with a smoke system.”

Griff laughed.  “All my dusters have smoke, although we call them smokers.  When we take off we know the winds at the departure field, but - when we reach the area to be treated, who knows what the winds are.  We make a pass with smoke to establish the wind direction so we can lay down a good spray.”

I’d never heard this before.  Later in the week I talked to a fire bomber pilot whose Air Tractors have the same system.  Reno, like Oshkosh, is filled with aviation people with great experience, expertise, and a passion for flight.  Griff and the tanker pilot had filled in a gap in my understanding of tanking ops.  Sharing knowledge is part of aviation.

When you go to Reno, you need to absorb  the sights, sounds, symbolism, and sensations.  You can’t take it all in, it’s too big, so focus on memorable and majestic moments.

-Learn about crop dusting as an art.

-Appreciate and applaud the New Zealanders’ success in overcoming their Yak-3 engine issues and the joy of Graeme Frew and his crew when “Full Noise” won the Bronze on Thursday.  They’d been aided by members of a number of racing teams, including Sawbones’ Crew Chief Doug Weske.

-Watch the Heritage Flight with an A-10A Warthog and a P-38 Lightning saluting America’s Air Force.

-And, always appreciate that although our aviation family is small, our shared experiences as teams, participants, flyers, and spectators gives us an incredible and indelible bond.

Wednesday, Sept 13

Like Oshkosh, Reno is about people…

“You met Paul Mantz?”

“Yup, at the the Cleveland Air Races.  I was just a kid with a camera.”

Lockheed Bob adjusted his hat and leaned his cane against the concrete barrier.  An air band radio was hooked to his belt, emitting a faint hiss.

“Sounds like a stuck mic,” he sighed.

“How about Cook Cleland?  Did you ever meet him?”

“Oh, yeah.  And Dick Becker.  Somehow Cleland talked the Navy out of those Super Corsairs.”

“Remember how Mantz got those high speeds in his Mustang in the Bendix?”

“Yes, high and faster than anyone else.”

“Yea, he didn’t fly a direct course.  No he didn’t.  He told me, you know, he’d fly north of of LA, way north, and pick up the jet stream - saved gas, gained speed, flew more miles, but he’d come into Cleveland over Lake Erie.”

“Jet stream.”

“Yup, jet stream.”

History on the hoof.  He’d been there.  I’d only read about it.  Bob shuffled his feet a bit, as the tarmac didn’t do his 85 year old legs much good.

“Got this picture…”  He delved into his left shirt pocket.  

“You know, everyone gets down on Polaroid pictures,” he moved his black cane so it wouldn’t fall down.  “After all these years, it’s still good.  See?  Do you know who this is?  I took it with a Polaroid.”

I gently cradled the old photo, its colors still excellent.  It showed a tall, long faced man in front of a radial engined high wing, strut braced antique.

“Know who this is?” he repeated with mischief in his eyes.

“P-38 test pilot…”

Bob started to smile.

“Tony Levere.”

“Damn!” he laughed.  “You’re the only one who recognized him.  Let’s see if your buddy knows.”

Bob handed the photo to Bryan of Section 3 who’d just walked up.  No dice!

It’s been that way all week.  Lockheed Bob makes his rounds swapping stories and hinting at, an sometimes repeating, secrets.  Early in the week he had an autographed print of Rare Bear signed by Lyle Shelton.  Another day he brought a Sawbones T-shirt “for a friend.”

Paul Mantz, Frank Tallman, Steve Wittman, “Tiger”, the Skunk Works, Lockheed Bob had been there.

Wednesday he stopped by with a new black shirt.

“It’s secret, but what the hell, Tom.  Take a look at this.  It’s a retirement tour - see, this almost makes it official.”

I’d heard rumors around Stead since I’d gotten there on Saturday afternoon.  I’d heard, one more shot at the record to really and finally set it - then, maybe, it would go to a museum.  Bob brushed some extra sun block off his chin and gave me a knowing smile.

“We’ll see, huh?”

He folded the T shirt up - well, more rolled it up, and, “I’ll see ya later.”  He gave me a thumbs up and picked his way toward the T-6 pits, hunched slightly forward over his cane, eyes bright with excitement.

What was the secret?  Can’t tell you, it wouldn’t be secret if I did.

Tuesday, Sept 12

“Looks like about 20 minutes,” Tony commented while looking at green and orange blobs on his cell phone.

The mid Tuesday afternoon sky had changed from ominous to threatening to, depending on your viewpoint, a great fireworks show or freaking scary, especially since Strega was still out on the course.  The wind had switched 180 degrees and the temperature had seriously dropped.

In a pit near us the New Zealanders were valiantly working to change the Allison engine on their Yak-3, “Full Noise.”  Its tail was up on an oil drum, the plumbing was being unhooked, and the prop and header tank had been removed.

Japanese photojournalist and artist Miki Matsuda eyed the sky with calm disinterest and asked me about the greenish liquid streaming from the engine.

“Coolant,” I replied.  

“Ah,” he nodded.

As it got colder and windier, we both headed for cover.

Pack up the merchandise, cover the display, bring in the trash cans and other loose objects and - BAM!  Rumbling thunder turned to explosions.  It had turned into high gear, like a smack to the head.

Everything secure, we congregated in the trailer, Curt and Mary, Jan, Doug, Mikalia, Brent, Sue and I, each with a water, Gatorade, or beer from the cooler turned sofa to wait out the storm.  Tony stood on the steps daring Mother Nature to turn him into what Curt called, “A whiff of Lumpy Knuckles vapor.”

Brent, checking out his new camera’s features, equally calmly photographed the lightning - as, indeed, there were some pretty damn impressive cloud to ground strikes.  

Just another day at the air races…

Monday, Sept 11

Minnesota in Reno?  Or should I say aircraft that once lived in Minnesota?  I’ve worked with four air museums and announced air shows for 26 years.  That’s a lot of planes in flybys or as static exhibits.  On Saturday, after checking in to the hotel, Sue and I headed for Stead.  A quick walk around and I spotted some “old” friends.  

A familiar B-25J that once flew with Pat Harker’s C & P was parked on the ramp.  It now flies with the Texas Flying Legends Museum.  It’s a solid nose Mitchell with a real super paint scheme.  

Stop again - there was “Little Horse” once owned and flown by Paul Ehlan.  It’s one of over 175 Mustangs I’ve photographed over a 40+ year period.  But that wasn’t the only Mustang.  As I walked by the pits on the main road - N151BP.  Yipes!  That was Bob Pond’s first P-51.  It had been recovered from Canada by Chuck Doyle.  As I looked closer, I heard, “Tom?”  I stopped and stepping across a tow bar was another Tom, Tom Krueger, who painted the very first airplane I helped restore.  At Bob Pond’s museum at FCM, a group us volunteers rebuilt a Navy T-34B.  I hadn’t seen Tom in close to 25 years.  It was time for stories (perhaps a few exaggerations- we call it hangar flying) and catching up.

Arriving later in the weekend was a familiar P-38 flown by Steve Hinton. Once called “Joltin’ Josie” it hangared at Planes of Fame - East for a number of years.  It was the first Lightning I’d ever called in a show.  

It’s people, too.  Linda Frey and her husband Rich are Reno security volunteers.  Linda was a controller at Flying Cloud in the days when I flew out of there.  Yes, we had overlapping experiences.  Like the floatplane that landed on the pavement with its wheels up…A story for another time!