Truckee pilot to compete in upcoming air races
Southwest Airlines Pilot Birch Entriken first decided he wanted to fly after witnessing the Truckee Air Show of 1977.
His flight instruction began that year at Truckee-Tahoe Airport, and this year, Entriken will compete for the first time in the Reno Air Races, to be held from Sept. 12 through Sept. 19.
“I’ve been going to the Reno Air Races for years and years,” Entriken said. “I just got to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore: I had to play.”
The “game,” to be played in Entriken’s very yellow Formula One experimental aircraft, a Shoestring named Spud Runner, requires precision and skill, a strong stomach, good communication skills, concentration and an inkling of a crazy streak.
“Of course you’re always paying attention to what you’re doing,” Entriken said. “You’d be silly if you didn’t think about the risk. The air races are certainly not without a certain number of fatalities.”
Which is why Entriken and his crew of three: Jack Suierveld, Patrick Callaghan and Robert Todd, practice communication, run drills and meticulously maintain the aircraft on a daily basis.
The drills through which the crew runs are called escape maneuvers, Callaghan said, and are meant to ensure that the pilot can recover in the event air currents off leading aircraft cause Entriken’s plane to roll or spin.
Escape maneuvers are practiced when Entriken flies his 500-pound, 100- horsepower racing plane in the 4 o’clock position approximately 30 feet from a plane flown by Suierveld, who flies in the 12 o’clock position. Because race rules require participants to pass only from outside positions and only on straight stretches, during drills Entriken’s and Suierveld’s positions are carefully maintained to simulate true race conditions.
Suierveld leads, laying a track-shaped racing course in the air. Entriken follows, simulating a non-lead race position. In addition to learning to combat possible complications arising from air current turbulence, Entriken must learn to function optimally as severe gravitational forces play on his body through turns.
Traveling at about 145 mph, while banking turns at what seems to be 70 degrees, body weight triples.
Gravitational force presses down on the body like the weight of deep water and takes hold of the stomach and yanks.
Arms are heavy and difficult to lift and a turn of the head can cause nausea as the inner ear deviates from the rest of the body’s course of travel. When leveling off again, the body and head lightens, limbs want to lift and may even experience a numb or tingling sensation.
With his body crammed into a space the size of a child’s toy chest, where sensitive instruments respond to the slightest touch, Entriken must maintain complete physical control through the ever-changing influences of racing maneuvers.
Suierveld said Entriken has given the crew a list of three priorities in descending order of importance: Safety, big fun, and learning.
Daily maneuvers and maintenance reflect the crew’s regard for safety, while animated discussions after practice runs reveal a devotion to learning that could only be inspired by a thrill some might call fun.
“To set up for the race, every time we fly we fill the fuel tank,” Callaghan said. “Then we check how much fuel we used per minute. Because each gallon of fuel weighs about six pounds, we’ll put in exactly what we know he’ll need during the race. That’s one way we can cut down on the weight.”
Cutting down on the weight of fuel is desirable, because in the Formula One racing class at Reno, Entriken said, the minimum weight of the aircraft is specified, as are the configurations of the wing area, the engine’s maximum horsepower, and the weight of the pilot.
The aircraft will be disqualified if modified or light, and ballast is added if the pilot weighs less than 160 pounds.
The aircraft must meet minimum weight requirements with an empty fuel tank.
“These specifications level the racing field,” Entriken said. “They make it more of a competition between pilots and skill than between the aircraft being flown.”
To prove that his skills are sufficient to compete in the Reno Air Races, Entriken was required to attend a three-day seminar in June.
“For rookies, those who have never flown in Reno, and those who haven’t competed there for two years,” Entriken said.
Entriken also put himself through a more stringent evaluation program offered under the auspices of International Formula One, he said.
With the president of the company in another airplane, Entriken, who considers himself a rookie, had to demonstrate proficiency at formation flying, inverted flying, and maneuvering aircraft rolls.
All these abilities had to be demonstrated without losing more than 50 feet of altitude. This figure is not arbitrarily selected, he said, for in competitions like the Reno Air Races, 50 feet is the altitude at which race participants fly.
“When I practice, I wear a parachute,” Entriken said. “But when I compete, I don’t. At 50 feet above the ground, a parachute’s really not gonna do you much good.”
Nor will a loss of 50 feet in altitude.
Entriken said he considers the risks, but he has confidence in his crew, his aircraft and his abilities. He expects to find himself placed in the silver division of the Formula One races at Reno after qualifying races begin Sept. 16.
His crew has confidence in his abilities as well.
“That plane’s like a glove on him,” Suierveld said. “He’s flying very, very well.”
Regardless of which division Entriken qualifies for at Reno and how he performs in that division, he and the crew have even bigger plans for the future.
“We are looking at building a faster engine this winter,” Entriken said. “And perhaps mounting it in a faster airframe next year.”
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