Chatting by the Wildfire
July 17, 2004
Story and photos by W J Pearce
Originally published by All Aviation Flightline Online
Subsequently published by Wildfire Air Racing
Wildfire is one of the more unusual Unlimited air racers with perhaps the longest gestation period of any. The years of silence with this racer tucked away in a hangar in Mojave, combined with its mysterious first flight, have lead to the birth of many rumors surrounding its past, present and future. On a recent AAFO.COM assignment to Mojave, I had the opportunity to check in with Team Wildfire and separate truth from fiction.
Wildfire was conceived in the mid 70s to make Unlimited Air Racing more affordable and save the existing war birds seen at Reno each September. It is thought that with affordable Unlimited air racers, air racing as a sport will spread to other venues across the country while preserving WWII aircraft.
Former Director of Science and Engineering, William H. Statler, designed Wildfire and he is no stranger to air racing. Bill's first design was a Goodyear midget racer for Al Foss who built the plane in 1949. Foss raced it as "Jinny" #94. It was later sold to Jim Dewey and raced by his son, Mike. It retained the #94 but was now called "Little Mike". Number 94's last race was in 1970, but the airplane is still owned by Mike Dewey in Santa Paula, CA who is restoring it as a museum piece.
The Second aircraft to come from Bill Statler Sr's sketchpad was for James Kistler. Assigned number 31, it has a colorful history with many name and owner changes. Kistler raced as "La Jollita" and "Skeeter". It was sold to Art Scholl who campaigned it as "Miss San Bernardino". Scholl managed a 3rd place finish in the championship race of 1964, and 4th in both 1965 and 1966. Sold to Smokey Stover and renamed "Skeeter" again, race 31 soldiered on with another 4th place in 1967. 1971 Marked another owner, Larry Borrow. "Skeeter" returned to Reno in 1976 with Smokey Stover at the controls once again, finishing 1st in the Medallion race. Race 31 continued to pass through owners and around the pylon until 1984.
In typical Unlimited fashion, Wildfire is a low wing monoplane with conventional undercarriage. Its wing is an entirely custom built NASA airfoil, attached to a heavily modified forward airframe and a scratch-built aft fuselage. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-2800-CA-97W and propelled via a 3-blade airscrew, Wildfire is definitely a very distinct air racer.
It was the team's normal workday on the racer when I arrived. I felt a bit like I was in their way so I decide to let them work while I took pictures; we would sit down over lunch and discuss the racer. Wildfire was bigger than I envisioned it. Basically the aircraft looked complete but many little things remained unfinished and we all know those are the things that take the most time.
Working on the racer on this Friday, June 4th, were Bill Statler Sr., Skunk Works engineer Bill Statler Jr., Cal-Tech and JPL analyst Dennis Wittman, and mechanic and auto-racer Greg Austin. Slowly yet methodically the racer was coming together in the hot oven that is a hangar at Mojave, not far from Nemesis NXT and Scaled Composites. Missing due to work commitments were crew members Rich Statler, Senior Vice President, System Development, for the Mericom Corporation and Paul Novacek, Avionics Engineer and Vice President of Development for Electronic Flight Solutions.
Despite my small protest, I was treated to lunch by the crew and began the question and answer session to get the truth about Wildfire:
W J Pearce AAFO.com: What is Wildfire?
Bill Statler Jr.: It is an Unlimited homebuilt raceplane made to be competitive, with new designs that did not cost a million dollars and would not start with a WWII airplane. I'd like to preserve the ones that are left. Behind that, we want to see racing grow and continue. I've been a fan since I was five and my dad has been involved since the 40s. We thought if we created something like this, more people would get into racing and the sport would grow. If we get air racing to grow, more people will want air racing in their town and someday we might have 4 to 5 events per season.
AAFO: Wildfire uses some T-6 in it, what is still left of the T-6?
Bill Jr.: Very little. The main landing gear and the tail wheel and that's about it. In fact, the wheels and brakes aren't even off a T-6.
Bill Statler Sr.: They're off a Sabreliner.
Bill Jr.: So the gear struts are T-6 and the tailwheel is T-6. That's the only thing on there that's T-6.
AAFO: Where did the airframe come from?
Bill Jr.: It's basically scratch built. We started with an airframe and beefed it up. From the cockpit aft is all new; the tail is new, the aft fuselage is new. We took a tubular structure in the front and heavily beefed it up, redesigned it, rebuilt it to take the loads and stresses that the R-2800 was going to introduce into this airframe. A lot of the stories are that we took an R-2800 and mounted it in front of a T-6 and that is not what we did.
AAFO: Explain the wing and the fairings?
Bill Jr.: The wing is built from scratch and is modeled after a NASA airfoil that dad found. The whole purpose that is behind the airplane is to maintain lift so we can maintain speed on a pylon racecourse.
Bill Sr.: The airplane has a wide wing cord and a low wing loading and that's to keep it from mushing out in the turns like most of them do.
Bill Jr.: The original fairings that you see in the old pictures are ones that we slapped on just so we could go fly it. They were not meant to be the final design. Now we are redesigning the fairings with a much more aerodynamic fairing. The engineer will tell you all about those (pointing to Bill Sr.).
Bill Sr.: You take section cuts through the airplane and then calculate how much fairing area you need at each station to make a real smooth transition [from wing to fuselage] as they change size to go back. It is designed to aerodynamically smooth the transition from wing to fuselage.
AAFO: Explain the cowling and scoop?
Bill Jr.: Everything on the airplane is designed for a purpose and that big ugly scoop on top is to make sure we get enough air into the engine so the engine runs at it's best. Taking advantage of the aircraft's speed to ram air into the carburetor. It's a downdraft carburetor and the scoop creates a rise in air pressure and slams the air right smack into the carburetor; the faster the plane goes, the more air it gets, the more power it makes.
Bill Jr.: To make the engine as cool as possible.
Bill Sr.: And you have to let out the back what you take in the front.
Bill Jr.: Otherwise it will back out the front and create drag and you are not really cooling anymore. And that is also why we run the spinner that we do. It's small to let more cooling air into the cowling.
Bill Sr.: You have to put the cooling air through the cylinder fins. It does not do you much good to just dump air in all around the engine; you need to get it to flow through the fins.
AAFO: In your own words, describe the first flight.
Bill Jr.: I'll omit names. We made a very serious mistake on the first flight. A pilot came up to us and said he was a test pilot and wanted to fly the airplane. We thought it was great that he volunteered.
Bill Sr.: He said he was from the Air Force test pilot school.
Bill Jr.: We told him exactly what we wanted him to do. Taxi down the runway and see if the tail comes up.
Bill Sr.: First thing you ever do with a new airplane is fly it down the runway and land it on the runway.
Bill Jr.: Especially if it's a taildragger. We had the whole test flight program all laid out and he had a copy. If you get it to takeoff speed and the tail is not up, obviously you have a problem that needs to be figured out. Well, he came down the runway and went straight up. We have it all on tape. We were down the runway where we expected him to come by with the tail up and we could get it all on film. He got halfway to us and was going straight up.
Bill Sr.: He's the guy that put 200 pounds in the tail.
Bill Jr.: He gets it on the ground and he badmouths the airplane. He says it is a bad design and it has this wrong, it has that wrong. We found out that he had zero time behind an R-2800 and 30 minutes in a taildragger the day before. The money ran out after that and the words coming out of this test pilot's mouth did not stop for months. He told anyone who would listen how bad the airplane's design was and what was wrong with it. We have been living with that for 20 years. But it flew.
Greg Austin: Are there really that many rumors?
Bill Jr.: Oh, you would not believe.
AAFO: What happened with Skip Holm doing an engine run-up that resulted in a nose over?
Bill Jr.: It did not nose over. This was my fault; it was my personal fault. On the first flight, the test pilot insisted that we put an additional 200 pounds of ballast in the tail. That should have been a warning to us and we just did not see it. We thought he knew what he was doing. After that flight I told the crew to take the ballast out of the tail, meaning the 200 pounds the test pilot asked us to put in. All of it was taken out instead, so now we did not have any ballast in the tail. Again, I did not make myself clear. It was my fault; I take responsibility for it. So all the ballast was taken out and when Skip was taxing he taxied over in front of a big hanger. He turned and the propwash hit the front of the hanger and came back and lifted the tail. The prop just barely hit the ground, that's all it did.
Bill Sr.: And we have eyewitnesses and film that show when Skip went up on the prop tips, the elevator was at neutral; it was not up at all.
Bill Jr.: That's another problem we discovered. When Skip pulled the stick back to put the elevator down, it stayed at neutral. But it was my fault that all the ballast was taken out. The neutral elevator was not Skip's fault; he had the stick back. We found that there were some blocks that would not allow the elevator to move as it should have. But it never really nosed over; it just came up far enough to tap the prop tips.
Bill Jr.: Well it's going to change. Right now we have 120 pounds and we have just put in a heavier battery in the tail and we put in a fire suppression system back there too.
Dennis Wittman: And we lost a prop blade.
Bill Jr.: Thank you. We are running a 3-blade prop rather than the 4-blade. The 3-blade prop is more efficient. We also took all the high altitude gears out of the blower. So we will have to do a weight and balance and take some ballast out of the tail. We will do it by weighing the airplane.
AAFO: Does Wildfire have a center of gravity problem?
Bill Jr.: No.
Bill Sr.: And the wheels are not too far back. They are just fine.
AAFO: Is the ballast solid; not any type of consumables like ADI, fuel, or anything else?
Bill Jr.: There is no bladder tank in the tail that we were going to fill with water. It is bolted down, solid lead ballast.
Bill Sr.: It is real easy to balance this airplane. All we have to do is weigh it and do it right.
AAFO: Where did the prop come from?
Bill Sr.: The prop came from a T-29, which is a military Convair 440. We used three of the four blades and it is a really efficient prop.
AAFO: Dave Morss is your new test pilot, how did he get involved?
Bill Jr.: He called us and wanted to come down and see the plane. We spend about 3 hours talking and looking around. He made us an offer and we took it. We are very happy to have him on board. He's a great pilot.
AAFO: Will he be the race pilot?
Bill Jr.: Yes, that is the plan.
AAFO: When will the next flight be?
Bill Jr.: When we are ready. For us this is not something that we will rush. There is still a lot of work to be done and without a major sponsor, the work is done when we can get to it.
AAFO: Will you make it to Reno this year?
Bill Jr.: A couple of months ago we were talking about if we got a sponsor that came through to sponsor the airplane, could we do that? Would we do that? And we thought that if everything goes well, we'll try. Here we are and September is not far away and we don't have a sponsor and we will really need a sponsor to help us with the flight test program and that's not going to be cheap. So we take it day by day now.
AAFO: If you can you will be at Reno?
Bill Jr.: If everything goes well and there are no problems where safety would be an issue, than we could be at Reno for static display only. The only thing that I want to have done other than all the flight-testing is a paint job. I want the aircraft painted for its Reno debut. There's a lot of work left; it's not impossible but we are running out of time.
AAFO: So safety is of paramount importance, which is what is should be.
Bill Jr.: That's right and another thing that we will have on this airplane is a telemetry system. Some of the other racers have a basic system, but we will have a very sophisticated telemetry system; 64 channels on this airplane. We are going to measure everything and some of the constant things we will be measuring is flutter on all the control surfaces.
Bill Sr.: We are going to read it right here on the ground. That guy up there in the airplane can't read it all, he can't do it all.
Bill Jr.: His job is to fly it and our job is to find out if there are problems that we need to fix.
AAFO: Czech Mate is powered by a R-2800 and is in the 420-440 MPH range which puts it in the middle of the Gold. Using Czech Mate as a yardstick, how will Wildfire do?
Bill Jr.: We will be faster. The reason I say that is one; Czech Mate does not have our wing. Two, Czech Mate is based off a WWII era trainer. We’ll be faster. Their wing doesn't have the cord that we have, it doesn't have the lift coefficient that we have. As far as weight, it would probably be about the same. But there again, if the Yak wants to be faster they need to get more air into that engine.
AAFO: How well do you think Wildfire will do? What lap speeds do you think you will see?
Bill Jr.: When we are wired up and ready to go and the airplane is completely debugged so to speak, we will be in the Gold race every time. We will be fast enough to be in the gold race.
Bill Sr.: It's basically designed to go 500 MPH on the racecourse.
AAFO: Do you feel that is achievable?
Bill Sr.: Yep.
Dennis: It was also designed 30 years ago.
Bill Jr.: Yeah, when we designed this 30 years ago we would have been the fastest airplane on the course. People now have gotten a little smarter and are doing things a little different. Dago Red, they're getting speeds out of that Mustang that are incredible, it amazes me, just amazes me. More power to them.
AAFO: After 25 years, when you get to Reno, is it more important how you place or that you have made it; a project completed?
Bill Jr.: Winning is secondary. It would be nice to win but we are not going up there to win. What we want to do is introduce a homebuilt airplane that is competitive and will help the air races grow. In other words, to help air racing survive.
Bill Sr.: I would answer your question Bill by saying we're going racing to win. It might take another 20 to get there but we're going to win.
In one sentence Bill Statler Sr. sums up the entire essence of Team Wildfire. The Wildfire team has been a team longer than most of the other Unlimited racers, despite the technicality of never racing. Their dedication, determination, and attitude will be very welcome at Reno and any other racing venue.
WILDFIRE NEWS UPDATE
Due to several reasons, the owners and crew of Wildfire have decided not to race the airplane at Reno 2004. First, racing in 2004 would mean rushing the flight test program, possibly at the expense of performance. Second, the team is still searching for, and speaking with potential sponsors to fund the project. A thorough flight test program as well as adequate funding is necessary for the team to exploit the full potential of the race plane. "We know what Wildfire is capable of doing and we don't want to settle for anything less than top performance", says Bill Statler Sr., designer of the race plane.
Obviously disappointed, the crew showed their championship team qualities by finding the positive side of the situation.
"This will give us the opportunity to conduct an extensive flight test program and be 100% ready to race full out at Reno in 2005. If we had rushed the flight test program to make Reno this year, we might have missed something important".
Being in unanimous agreement on this, the crew went back to work with the same intensity they had been applying to the project in the attempt to make Reno 2004.
For additional information on Wildfire or to help the team out by purchasing merchandise and by becoming a benefactor, click on over to www.wildfireairracing.com
Bill Pearce and AAFO.com sincerely appreciate the assistance and hospitality of Team Wildfire. We wish them the best of luck and are looking forward to seeing the team in 2005.
Please visit the Wildfire Gallery for additional images.
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