Can I tell you something?
I’m not usually a huge air show fan. They’re too often out of touch with audiences. Too much time between acts, incomprehensible inside jokes, aerobatics that happen so high above ground that you need binoculars to understand what’s really going on. But the Reno Air Races are not like that, and when friends of ours scored box seats this year, of course we went.
This is four days of the best of the best in the fastest motorsport in the world. It’s also the world’s oldest air race event. Pilots here are flying for championships, topping out at speeds as high as 497 mph just 60 feet above ground. You don’t have to know how to fly to appreciate how unbelievably scary that is and the high skill required to pull it off. Between races, there are war re-enactments and aerobatic shows. And there are curly fries. And margaritas.
The show is staged at the Reno-Stead airport just a few minutes north of the city, and attendees can stroll through air craft on the ground for close-up and photo opps.
Breitling is the main sponsor for the air races, and their 8-plane aerobatics team put on stunning performances every day. It’s always seemed to me like a lot of this stuff is over-hyped and a bit of a let down once you see it, but this team did not disappoint. Watching planes fly in such perfect synchronicity is rare but beautiful. I’ll tip my hat to that kind of mastery.
I’ve always thought of Breitling as just being another overpriced watch brand and that they’d forged a false bond with aviation as a marketing scheme, but it turns out that they supplied the Royal Air Force with “onboard chronographs” in the late 1930s. When WWII took off, so did the Breitling connection with aviators. So there. They know their history and they’re proud of it.
My absolute favorite event was watching aerobatics master David Martin perform in his Breitling CAP 232. He is hands-down the best aerobatics performer I have ever seen live. This guy does maneuvers that make my hands sweat.
Another super popular event was the Tora! Tora! Tora! re-enactment. I must confess my ignorance here, in that I knew Tora! Tora! Tora! was a popular WWII movie, but I didn’t realize it was based on the events of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The re-enactment involves T6’s instead of the Japanese Zeroes and Katies, but they’re painted true to history and fly the Rising Sun flags. During the flight portion, the planes fly attack formations for the crowds while a pyrotechnics crew on the ground sets off bombs meant to replicate the attacks on the USA fleet.
It’s pretty cool, and certainly drew a lot of attention. Proponents says that these re-enactments serve the dual purpose of piquing public interest and keep the history alive (but I’m certain that everyone in that particular crowd knew what Pearl Harbor was and why it mattered). For aviation buffs, it’s neat to see the planes in action doing what they were built to do. But I have to admit, it made me a bit uncomfortable for the same reasons that Civil War re-enactments made me shift in my seat, too. What are we honoring and why? If we re-enacted the 9/11 attacks, would these draw oohs and ahhs and camera flashes, too? I know I am a minority in this camp, but the question deserves some thought.
Either way, it’s a good show, and it’s tremendously popular.
The main draw to the races is, of course, the actual races themselves. There are a bunch of different classes–unlimited, sport, T6 (my favorite because all the airplanes are basically the same and the outcome depends more on the skill and strategy of the pilot), jet, etc. Pylons are set on the ground to form a circular course and the planes fly point-to-point, often wingtip-to-wingtip. It’s pretty to awesome to watch, and definitely drew us all to our feet whenever anyone passed each other.
In conclusion? If you’re an aviator, you should definitely go. If you’re not a pilot but happen to be in the area, you should still go.
Know and Go
You can’t actually fly to the air races (the entire Reno-Stead airport is occupied for the event), but you can get pretty close. Non-participating aircraft should choose Reno-Tahoe Airport, Carson City Airport, Truckee Airport, or other Northern Nevada/California airports as their destination, then rent a car or take the shuttle from the Grand Sierra Resort to Reno-Stead.
We flew into Reno-Tahoe’s Atlantic Aviation. It’s a beautiful FBO and, judging by the number of aircraft parked next to their tarmac, the most popular FBO of choice for race attendees.
There are parking lots alongside Reno-Stead that accompanied dry camping for trailers, RVs, and tent campers… but c’mon, wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a hotel? It’s pretty chilly in the evenings at that elevation. Grand Sierra Hotel is the first recommendation by the air race website, but it’s not walkable to Reno’s super-fun River Walk. We stayed at the gorgeous Whitney Peak Hotel. It’s dog friendly, has an awesome farm-to-table restaurant, a climbing wall, valet, and just happened to be the hotel of choice for the entire Breitling Group.
The air show itself is a bit of a party. Lots of people brought coolers, and there are plenty of vendor booths that sell beer, booze, and wine to take back to your seats. General admission tickets give you access to unreserved seating and food vendors, but no pit access. These never sell out. You can purchase at the gate. Upgrades like box seats, pit passes, and checkered flag club tickets are available online.
Kiddos? I say pass, but it’s up to you. There’s a lot of walking, it’s really hot during the day (90+), there’s little to no shade, and I don’t think I saw a single kid-specific booth. At a public event where you can get a nice buzz, chow down on a pound of curly fries, and admire aircraft spinning, twirling, smoking, and soaring, it’s just more fun to revel in adulthood.
Curious? Go here.