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Among Champions:

My Time in the Sport Class at Reno 2004



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February 28, 2005
Story and photos by - W J Pearce
Wednesday 9/15/2004 – Nemesis Promise

No other qualification attempts were made. Parker was officially the top qualifier, followed by Greenamyer and Sharp. Although Sharp was out for the racing, the damage to NXT proved not too severe. Team Nemesis vowed to get the plane running under its own power and taxi it before the crowd on the weekend. To accomplish this, a lot of repair work needed to be done including an engine change.

Blue Thunder was ready to rumble and prove that its qualification speed was not just a fluke.
Thursday 9/16/2004 – They Should All Be Like This

It was a beautiful day, perfect for an air show and especially perfect for an air race. The air show performers demonstrated their talents to the crowd, and air racers competed against each other. But my thoughts, and the crew’s thoughts, were on Sport Heat 1A.

The Sport racers were out on the tarmac ready to go. The tension was higher than it had been for qualifying. A million thoughts raced through everyone’s minds: mentally checking and rechecking procedures, going over figures and running though scenarios as the minutes ticked by before the race.
The time to start the engines was now upon us, and Blue Thunder purred like a kitten. Running a liquid cooled engine with the radiator on the belly can present a few problems on the ground. Simply put, the cooling airflow is not very effective, and the engine does not like running too long, or it will overheat. It wants to fly, and who can blame it.
Greenamyer had some trouble starting his Lancair. Was this a sign of things to come? After a few attempts Greenamyer and his crew chief Andy Chiavetta, got the Continental engine going. Greenamyer rolled down the taxiway behind Parker and out of sight behind the hangars at the west end of the airport.
The teams repositioned closer to the crowd line, out of the way of other race teams preparing for their race. That’s when I heard the radio crackle: “Race 33’s engine died and needs the start cart.”
Race 33 was Greenamyer's number, and I looked over at his team but saw no movement. Again: “Race 33’s engine quit and he needs his crew to bring the start cart.” Still no movement — they didn’t hear.
Quickly we ran over to them shouting: “Darryl’s engine quit, he needs a start!” Before those words could have even sunk in, Chiavetta and crew were off to start Greenamyer.
The thought crept into my mind that if we hadn’t told Greenamyer’s crew that he needed help, he might not have raced, giving us an easy win. But I wanted him to race. I wanted to beat him in the air, not on some technicality!
Blue Thunder sat on the runway getting hot while Greenamyer was getting restarted. The irony of the situation was not lost on us. We half-joked about how we would overheat waiting for Greenamyer and how we had caused the delay by telling his crew that he needed help. But Parker knew what he was doing. He had Blue Thunder at a slightly different angle than the other planes. He was facing directly into the wind to get a little extra cooling air into the radiator.
Greenamyer was now running, and Blue Thunder was rolling down the runway, dropping the engine temperature. It was time for the first race to get underway.
Parker shot out in front at the start of the race. He and Greenamyer pulled away from the rest of the field quickly. It would be a two plane race. As the laps fell, Greenamyer closed the gap and was within striking distance. He made his move on the front stretch, but suddenly, over the melodic hum of the raceplanes’ engines came the horrific scream of a runaway prop. Greenamyer pulled off the course and called a “mayday”.
The pitch of the propeller is controlled by a prop governor. If the governor fails, the prop goes into flat pitch and begins to rotate at a dangerously high RPM. The phenomenon is called a “runaway prop”. The prop forces the engine to turn at a much higher RPM. This can literally tear the engine apart.
Greenamyer came towards the runway with the engine shut down setting up for his landing. He kept the speed up, just as he should, but the slick airframe caused little speed to bleed off. Chiavetta remarked that the airplane had so little drag that it would continue to float down the runway. Its floating made me nervous. I wanted Greenamyer back on the ground.
Out of sight and down the runway, Greenamyer got the plane down and stopped. Moments later, Parker took the checkered flag, setting a new race record of 344.495 mph. Parker taxied in, and we started a low-key celebration. Chiavetta came by with race 33 in tow, saying that they would be back in the air later that night. That remained to be seen.
As is customary at the Reno Air Races, the winner of a race and their crew is offered a ride down the flight line in an antique fire truck. When it was offered to us, we all looked at each other. We aren’t the type that likes the spotlight on us. In the midst of saying no, each of us shot a glance at one-another. “When will we do this again?” we thought. Well, we hoped we would do it again on Friday, but in the spirit of the event, we gladly accepted our “victory ride” down the crowd line.
After a few more hours spent on the flight line, I returned to Parker’s hangar and was greeted by an unusual sight. Darryl Greenamyer, Andy Chiavetta, and two crew members from Performance Engines were working on Greenamyer's propeller in John Parker’s hanger. The overspeed had damaged the propeller, and it was now the only thing keeping them from getting back into the air. It wouldn’t be that night, but they would get back into the air.
At 11 pm, only the crew from Performance Engines remained. Parker asked them how much longer they thought they would be. “About three hours. But it’s your hangar, so if you need to go, we’ll stop.” was the answer.
“Turn out the lights and lock-up when you’re done.” Parker replied as he walked away.
Friday 9/17/2004 – Not a Good Day

Although we didn’t know when they left, we did know they cleaned up, turned out the lights, and locked up. We also knew their work was all for not. A better “plan B” had been implemented. That morning Rick Shrameck of Las Vegas few up in his Lancair Legacy and loaned his propeller to Greenamyer. Race 33 was back in the air. But was the engine damaged? Would it hold together for 3 more days of racing?

At the start, the race began just like Thursday’s, with Parker taking the lead. A few laps into the race, three things happened almost simultaneously: Blue Thunder seemed to lose power, I could see oil covering the bottom of the plane, and Greenamyer took the lead.
At the checkered, it was Greenamyer followed by Parker, who quickly declared a “mayday”, stating there was smoke in the cockpit. Parker got the plane down without issue but engine oil was dripping off the bottom of the racer.
Like Thursday, Blue Thunder was greeted by a fire truck after the race. But it was a modern truck with a full crew, who were doing their duty responding to the “mayday” call. Fortunately there was no fire and nothing for them to do, but we appreciated there attention. For us, there would be no fire truck ride. But that was the last thing on our minds.
Our situation improved back in the hangar. A clamp that holds the induction together had broken, forcing some of the ram air into the engine compartment instead of the engine. That was where the power loss came from. The oil, about 3 gallons, came from a dislodged drain plug in the gear reduction unit at the front of the engine. Fortunately, 5.5 gallons of oil were still in the engine. Our flight data showed that the oil pressure had never dropped below 50 psi.
Later, I checked to see how the repairs were going. John said that crew member Perry Johnson “went to get the clamp.” He added: “but I don’t know if he is coming back.”
This was a strange answer. “Why would Perry not come back?” I asked.
I was not prepared for what I was about to hear. “He got a call right before he left. His girlfriend was just killed in a car accident on her way from L.A.”
I felt numb. The clamp and Saturday’s race became meaningless. I did not know Johnson very well, but I wanted to make sure he knew I was there for him when he got back. And he did come back with the clamp, despite getting a bit lost on the way. It turns out that Johnson’s girlfriend had been on her way to Reno to see the races, and him.
The races seemed to melt away as I talked with Johnson. Then Johnson said something profound to me, “Right now,” he said, “the best thing for me is to be around friends. And that’s exactly where I am. I can’t think of a better place to be right now.”
Johnson’s comments made me wonder how much of the week was really about air racing. Is air racing simply a catalyst for something bigger? One special week that friends and family come together to celebrate life.
As Johnson left for the night, my thoughts retuned to the air races. Saturday would be a better day… it had to be.


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