Borrowed aircraft and dismal weather don’t stop the F1 air racers putting on a show! | Words Trevor Jarvis – Photos Jane Jarvis
“China Cup? Yes please, I always think tea tastes so much better from a china cup.” “No, not tea, we’re having an air race in China. It’s being organised by Air Race 1 but it’s not part of the World Cup series, so we’re calling it the China Cup, do you want to take part?”
With my own Formula 1 Shoestring racer still being modified, and unlikely to be completed in time for shipping to China, a call to my good friend Terry Gardner secured the use of his bright green Cassutt IIIM Kermit. Although Terry couldn’t come to China with us, he was more than happy to allow Dave Howell, his fellow Halfpenny Green flyer?and Taylor Titch owner, like me?to join us as team crew chief in his place.
Kermit, along with Cassutt G-BOMB, was loaded into the 40ft shipping container at Shenington (Edge Hill) airfield during the first week of October, ready for the road and rail journey eastwards to China.
Shenington is also the home base of world traveller and, more importantly on this occasion, LAA Inspector Colin Hales, who was designated crew-chief for G-BOMB, as well as providing the supervision and signatures for the reassembly of the two British permit-to-fly racers. (The ten American racers and one from Canada don’t have any such problems in this respect and are allowed to change wings and propellers more or less as and when they wish.)
Wuhan Hannan GA airport was being offered as the venue for an airshow to include our Formula 1 race as part of the Hannan District economic development programme. Not only did a quick computer search reveal the exact location of the airfield but also the latitude and expected weather.
Considering our previous races had been held in Spain, Tunisia, America and Thailand with a daily temperature peaking around 35°C, Wuhan was going to be quite different, with a climate similar to but just a little warmer than that of the UK in November. Average daytime highs around 16°C and night-time lows around 6°C.
We arrived in China on the evening of Sunday 11 November and were reunited with our aircraft on Monday morning, still in their steel containers, deposited on the airport apron. It didn’t take long to free them from their tie-downs and restraining blocks, ready to wheel them inside the massive new hangar for reassembly.
With all thirteen teams helping each other, either lifting wings back onto fuselages or providing the one tool that had been left in the workshop at home, by the end of the day the racers were all well on the way to being ready for scrutineering.
Tuesday morning the man with the clipboard arrived. It’s always a tense time as he methodically works his way through the list of items to be double-checked, such as wing and prop bolt tightness, split pins, brake effectiveness, play in the flying controls, and the canopy locking and emergency egress systems.
We were signed-off as ready for the test flight but at this point the Chinese bureaucracy first became apparent; the airspace had not been released for our use and it would be Wednesday before this could be made to happen.
With little else to do, a coach tour to Wuhan City was hastily arranged, getting us to the sights just as the light was fading towards darkness. This new city was very similar to any other modern cosmopolitan city around the world, full of brightly-coloured lights and well-dressed young people driving shiny new cars, including some European vehicles such as Audis and Range Rovers, going shopping, out to a restaurant, or to Starbucks to meet over a coffee.
It wasn’t quite how I had imagined China to be but, on the other hand, the tower blocks that I had expected to see were ever-present in the residential areas of town and couldn’t be built fast enough to accommodate an expanding and wealthy nation.
Wednesday morning felt a little cooler than the previous two days, with a lower cloudbase and reduced visibility. Where we had been wearing T-shirts on previous days, having warmed up from working on the racers, today was not the same and was a sign of the days to come.
In less than ideal conditions the airshow participants went through their routines and, having watched them, I judged the conditions to be satisfactory to make the first ever flight of a Formula 1 racer in China?and it was in a G-reg aeroplane.
The short test flight was carried out without any issues, using copious amounts of carb heat throughout. Kermit is more of a sports aircraft than an out-and-out racer so it still has the carburettor heater system in place?unlike some of the American aircraft.
While the pilots attend race briefings the crew chiefs refuel and check over their aeroplanes and make them available for racing, whilst also keeping them looking good for the spectators and cameras. Dave didn’t fail me in any of this. He did a great job, having Kermit available whenever I was allowed a slot to fly, and he was usually the first to have an aeroplane pulled out onto the ramp.
By Thursday the pylon team had been out to the muddy fields alongside the airport to position the six inflatable orange pylons denoting the boundaries of the race course. Everything was now in place for race practice, but with the visibility so poor it was agreed that we would only put two equally-matched racers on the course at the same time and separated by half a lap.
By doing this, we could at least get a practice flight completed before going up again to post a qualifying time. Although Kermit and I didn’t post times anywhere near fast enough to take part in the Gold-class race, we flew a smooth and consistent course pattern which was recorded by the on-board GPS data logging system provided by 51 Aero.
The weather improved sufficiently throughout the day to put eight aircraft up together from a race start. This is something that needs to be practiced by both the pilots and crew chiefs in order to safely achieve such a start that is unique to Formula 1 air racing.
Wuhan Hannan has been recently built as a GA airport and the runway is only thirty metres wide, compared with the 45 metres that we usually use for racing. This called for a rethink on the race start and it was decided to use four rows of two aircraft on the grid, instead of the usual three rows, with all aeroplanes starting the race together when the green flag drops.
Friday was the first of the show days and the gates were opened to the public. At the end of the morning brief the pilots were asked to stay behind and, as had been rumoured all week, lined up to take a breathalyser test conducted by the Chinese police. I’m pleased to report that everyone got the green light – probably not unconnected to the fact that small bottles of beer in our hotel cost more than £6 each!
The worsening weather only allowed the Silver heat race to be flown before the visibility and cloudbase were deemed too bad for flying; we achieved a third place. The visibility, although just about acceptable for the slower Silver class racers at course height?which is down to ten metres above the ground?became a problem when pulling up into the circuit for landing after the race.
Pull up in order to slow down and get a steeper approach angle in case the engine quits, and you risk losing the other racers in the poor visibility and a greater chance of carb icing when throttled back. Don’t pull as high and chance a flatter approach with carb icing present, and the risk arises of not making the runway if the engine stops!
On Saturday, the opening ceremony for the airshow was arranged for 10 a.m. and we were duly ushered from our nice dry hangar to take our seats at the front of a block of hundreds of soaking wet aluminium chairs which faced the stage containing the dignitaries and a giant TV screen behind it.
Each chair had a packed plastic rain mac placed on its seat, to be efficiently removed, seat wiped dry, then replaced, by an army of volunteer helpers. After many speeches and much clapping of hands and fluttering of red flags we were allowed to return to the sanctity of our Formula 1 hangar to contemplate what the weather might allow for the remainder of the day.
The decision was made that we wouldn’t race but, instead, the hangar would be opened to the public so they could view the diminutive race aircraft and chat with the pilots and mechanics. And come in they did?thousands of them!
The rest of the day was spent having photos taken with the children, signing their race sheets, and having selfies with the phone-wielding population of Wuhan. I think that, despite the dreadful weather, a lot of Chinese families went home that day with very happy memories of their visit to the Air Race1 China Cup hangar.
Sunday, the final day of the event, saw an improvement in the weather and the forecast was for a further improvement in the afternoon. It was decided that the Gold racers would fly a heat race first as they hadn’t raced all week, followed by the Silver final, then the Gold final to close the show.
There wasn’t anything I could do to make Kermit any faster in the air to improve my final race-standing, but I thought if I could get a good start and beat the two ahead of me into the air then I might stand a chance of getting to the first pylon ahead of them.
There was then a slim chance that I could hold this position throughout the race by flying a consistent and smooth line. Dave was behind me at briefing and I whispered to him to leave and defuel Kermit down to the allowed minimum of five gallons.
By the time briefing had finished (they never were very brief), Dave had already drained a lot of the excess fuel, giving us a weight saving, allowing faster acceleration at the start. I also asked him to check the tyre pressures as a soft tyre can really slow you down off the start line.
To add a little local flavour, the racers were towed in front of the spectators on their way to the runway by tuk tuk. Some were more roadworthy than others, and some had drivers who thought they could put on a better race than us!
Positioned on the second row of the grid with two racers ahead, I reconsidered my start strategy. With a thirty-metre-wide runway and two racers spaced-out line abreast ahead, I should be able to squeeze through the gap as I knew that Kermit should out-accelerate them with its lighter fuel load, increased tyre pressures and finer pitch sports propeller.
However, I felt that the risks were too high for a non-emergency situation and didn’t want to run the risk of clipping the wing of another racer if he unwittingly veered across the runway by a few feet during the takeoff roll.
With five minutes to the race start remaining, I started the O-200 to warm it up before committing it to full revs when the green flag dropped. It was the usual hazy day, with dampness in the air, and a temperature of about 10°C. Being fortunate to be equipped with carb heat, I selected it on until after bringing the engine up to full power, with ten seconds to go.
The green flag dropped and I already knew I had made a good start as I quickly closed up on the front row racers. The Cassutt in front of me, on my side of the runway, didn’t appear to be making a very good start and I was closing on both of them rapidly, with the uncertainty in my mind whether I could safely get between the two of them.
Reducing the power a little seemed the only safe option but still his tail came ever closer to my propeller so I had to cut the throttle and consider aborting. Just as I was doing this, he seemed to lurch away allowing me to increase the power again and continue the takeoff.
Trapped on the inside line I followed him into the air and once again found myself rapidly closing on him and had to throttle back shortly after takeoff until he accelerated away again. By this time, I had lost any advantage that I might have gained in the early stages of the race and had to be content with just flying the course as well as I could.
The visibility was significantly better than previous days, allowing for a safe race and recovery to the runway but it would appear that carburettor icing played a big part in the mixed fortunes of several racers.
After the Gold race, the Air Race 1 China Cup trophies were presented on the rostrum outside the hangar, with none other than LAA CEO Steve Slater announcing the winners. Achieving third place in the Silver race won me a rather large and suitably inscribed bronze trophy.
(So large, in fact, that I thought British Airways might charge me freight to take it back to Heathrow so it will eventually find its way home in the container with Kermit.)
Following the ceremonies at the airport, the trophies were taken away from us to be re-presented by the event dignitaries at the official gala dinner held at our hotel that evening. As well as receiving the trophies for a second time, here the pilots were also presented with very special cakes of organic Yunnan tea.
After an evening of speeches, dancing girls, presentations and a sixteen course Chinese dinner, the drinks flowed freely until the early hours, with the knowledge that there would be no breathalysers in the morning.
This is probably a good opportunity to thank Dave for all his hard work, and also to apologise for not quite making the early bus to the airfield on that Monday morning to help him get Kermit ready for the container.
And to thank Terry for the loan of the aircraft, leaving him without an aeroplane to fly for three months.
Now where’s that china cup, it’s time to put the kettle on!
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