Tom Aberle won the Gold Cup race in the Sport Biplane class at the National Championship Air Races in Reno.
“It was fun again,” Aberle said.
Aberle, who pilots Phantom, expected to win the Gold Cup race. “If it runs and I fly it right, it wins,” he said.
Last year Aberle had the fastest qualifying time in his class and won both heat races, but the finals were cancelled after the crash of a P-51 which killed the pilot and 10 spectators.
The fatalities led to some changes in pilot and aircraft procedure. “Several months ago a number of changes related to machines and pilots were announced, nothing too daunting,” Aberle said.
The changes included an earlier arrival requirement of noon on the Saturday prior to the qualifying. Aberle normally arrives at Reno-Stead Airport on the previous Friday night. “It didn’t impact us,” he said.
Previously a private pilot third-class medical clearance was required; the races now require a second-class clearance within 60 days of the event. There are also new pre-flight cautions associated with aircraft inspection.
The only change Aberle and his crew made to the plane between the 2011 air races and Phantom’s arrival Sept. 7 was replacing the electronic fuel pump, which has no impact on performance.
During the qualifying session pilots fly the 3.1-mile course until they are comfortable and then give a signal to the timer. The planes are then timed for two laps with the faster lap being counted as the qualifying speed. Aberle posted a qualifying lap of 260.413 mph during the Sept. 11 qualifying session.
The top eight qualifying planes compete in the Gold Division. The heat race and the main race consist of six laps apiece. Aberle’s first heat race was during the afternoon of Sept. 12. “The wind was blowing,” he said. “It’s nice that they let us fly our little airplanes early in the morning most times.”
Aberle won that heat race with an average speed of 225.958 mph. “No concern about the speed,” he said. “None of the heat races were at full throttle.”
Aberle and his crew changed the plane’s spark plugs between the first and second heat races. The second heat race was held Sept. 13, and Aberle won with an average sped of 241.243 mph. “We were on partial power,” Aberle said. “We kind of saved it.”
This year a third heat race was added, although Aberle was disqualified in that Sept. 14 race for flying too low at the start. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Aberle later reviewed the camera footage which showed that he was about 1 1/2 feet below the 25-foot minimum. A pilot can also be disqualified for not flying outside the pylons, so pilots at a higher altitude must take a wider course to ensure that they fly around the pylons. “It is easier to maintain the shortest course at a lower altitude,” Aberle said. “I tend to fly lower than most, and that runs the risk of what occurred on Friday.”
The plane’s spark plugs were changed between the third heat race and the Gold Cup race, and an oil change and filter work also occurred prior to the final competition.
Had Aberle not been disqualified in the final heat race, he would have started the Gold Cup race on the pole. The disqualification meant that he started on the outside of the back row – which meant he had to pass other planes rather than simply keep ahead of them. “Starting from that position, it gave the spectators and fans a much more interesting race,” Aberle said. “The spectators got to see Phantom go by seven airplanes.”
Aberle lapped six of those airplanes by the end of the race. “They watched me pass the airplanes twice,” he said.
Because the clock started when the first airplane passed the starting pylon, the start in the back also reduced Aberle’s speed. His official time of 4:36.363 equated to an average of 246.545 mph.
“I’ve finished in front, I’ve finished in back, I’ve finished most every place in between, but it’s more fun in the front,” Aberle said.
The winners of each of the six classes, including Aberle, received a commemorative Breitling watch.
The 69-year-old Aberle first flew the Reno course in 1966 and has been competing since 1967. Aberle, who owns Aberle Custom Aircraft and Fallbrook Air Service, designed and built Phantom over a seven-month period. Phantom weighs 738 pounds, has a wingspan of approximately 20 feet, and utilizes a four-cylinder, 360 cubic inch Ly-Con engine.
Phantom’s first flight took place in August 2003. In the 2003 Reno air races Phantom posted the division’s top qualifying speed at over 221 mph, but after one propeller was damaged in the qualifying session and the other propeller was damaged in the first heat race Aberle withdrew from the second heat race and the Gold Cup.
In 2004, Aberle qualified a an average speed of 241.05 mph to set a class record while also setting a Gold Cup race record with an average speed of 237.9 mph. Aberle co-owns Phantom with Andrew Buehler, who piloted the plane during the 2005 National Championship Air Races.
In 2006, Aberle broke his own record by qualifying at an average speed of 249 mph, won both heat races, and broke the Gold Cup record with a speed of 251.958 mph. In 2007, Aberle raised the qualifying speed record to 251.573 mph, but melted pistons in both the heat race and the Gold Cup race forced early exits. In 2008, Aberle posted the fastest qualifying time and won both heat races before setting a Gold Cup race record of 251.975 mph.
In 2009, Aberle posted the fastest qualifying time; he pulled out of the first heat race after a plugged fuel injector caused engine problems and ran the second heat race at 70 percent of full throttle before winning the Gold Cup race at an average speed of 236 mph. Aberle’s 2010 qualifying speed of 260.801 mph is still the class record, and he won both heat races that year before winning the Gold Cup race while averaging 250.858 mph.
The 2012 race was the third on Phantom’s current engine. “We will have a fresh engine for next year,” Aberle said.
Aberle is also building a new single-wing plane, which he expects to be a two-year process. “Next year may very well be Phantom’s last year,” he said.