Tom Aberle and his plane Phantom won the Gold Cup race in the Biplane class at the National Championship Air Races in Reno while setting heat race and Gold Cup average speed records.
The 2013 National Championship Air Races constituted the 50th such competition, and Aberle was also recognized as one of 12 mavericks and legends of the air races.
“I was honored to be one of those 12 recipients,” Aberle said.
The Mavericks and Legends banquet took place the night of Sept. 14. “I had every Aberle there in my family except two,” Tom Aberle said.
Aberle, who turned 70 on Aug. 2, had a 2 1/2-year-old great-grandson in attendance as well as children and grandchildren.
Phantom weighs 738 pounds, has a wingspan of approximately 20 feet, and utilizes a four-cylinder, 360-inch Lycoming engine. Aberle qualified at 259.444 miles per hour Sept. 9. 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.
The top eight qualifying planes compete in the Gold Division. The heat races and the main race consist of six laps apiece. Aberle won his first heat race Sept. 12 while averaging 254.243 mph, which was a class record for any heat or final race. Aberle averaged 251.975 mph during the 2008 Gold Cup race; he also held the previous fastest heat race times with average speeds of 249 mph in 2006 and 2010.
“We always hope for a new record,” Aberle said.
Aberle won his Sept. 13 heat race with an average speed of 250.242 mph.
Aberle noted that he ran both heat races at full throttle and that the difference in speed was unrelated to Phantom’s performance. “Atmospheric conditions change things without a doubt,” he said. “Good days things turn out better.”
Aberle started on the pole for the Sept. 15 Gold Cup race. His time of 4:29.836 equated to an average speed of 252.242 mph. Part of that time was consumed in maneuvers to lap six of the other aircraft. “There are seven other planes on the course,” Aberle said. “I had to go either above or outside them, thereby increasing the course length.”
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’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 set a class record by qualifying at an average speed of 241.05 mph and also set a Gold Cup 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 an average 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, he posted the fastest qualifying time and won both heat races before setting the Gold Cup 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 with an average speed of 236 mph. In 2010, Aberle increased the qualifying speed record to 260.801 mph, won both heat races, and averaged 250.858 mph in winning the Gold Cup.
The 2011 crash of a P-51 which killed the pilot and 10 spectators cancelled that year’s finals. Aberle had the fastest qualifying time and won both heat races in 2011.
In 2012, Aberle’s qualifying lap of 260.413 mph gave him the fastest qualifying time. He won his first two heat races but was disqualified in the added third heat race for flying below the 25-foot minimum. The disqualification forced him to start the Gold Cup race on the outside of the back row, which reduced his official speed since the clock started when the first plane passed the starting pylon. Aberle still won the race with an official average speed of 246.545 mph.