Introduction to Air Racing

Air Racing 101
A Primer on Cross-country Handicapped Speed Racing
By Pat Lowers


  1. Introduction
  2. Flight Planning and Navigation
  3. Fuel Management
  4. Winds and other Weather
  5. Fly-bys
  6. Cockpit Resource Management
  7. Scoring

Attachment A: Race Kit Checklist

Dedicated to the two women who have been most instrumental in getting me into racing and keeping it enjoyable for me – Debby Cunningham, my tutor, mentor, flight instructor, race partner, and inspiration – without whom I would likely never have found the Ninety-Nines or air racing. And Susan Larson, my good friend and occasional race partner whose exceptional skills as a pilot and racer have been the high watermark I strive to achieve.

I. Introduction

The race bug first bit me when I was still a student pilot. I was invited to copilot for a male friend in a local 250-mile round-robin race. Always willing to jump into new experiences, I accepted, knowing nothing about air racing and precious little about flying. The race was the His’N’Hers Great Pumpkin Classic. It was a handicapped speed race that involved finding and flying to five locations (I won’t call them all ‘airports’) and returning within the specified timeframe. My friend had limited experience with air racing and wasn’t very interested in imparting any of it to me. So, I basically went along for the ride, returning just as clueless as when I left and determined to find out what this was all about.

I could easily have been discouraged from racing after that episode and if I had, I would have missed some of the most fun adventures of my life. Instead I started looking for races to fly, ones where I would be the pilot. I flew the His’N’Hers race a few more times, gradually improving my standings but never close to the trophy class. Those other times I flew with my significant-other, Sparky, whose knowledge of physics and flight helped me to understand more about racing a plane. However, he was not a pilot, I was a new pilot, and at that time we both lacked insight into the capabilities and limitations of the aircraft.

Finally, Debby Cunningham, my flight instructor, came to my rescue and invited me to join her in the Palms to Pines race. It was a handicapped, cross-country speed race sponsored by the Ninety-Nines and was a race for women only. So, I embarked on a very different race experience and one that truly opened the doors for me to understand, learn and enjoy air racing at a much higher level. Gravitating to a situation where I could learn and grow, my love for racing grew as well. Debby and I entered the Palms to Pines Air Race seven times and placed in the top ten on four occasions.

Now I would like to share with others some basic concepts about air racing in the hope of making it easier to enter into the sport and to seriously encourage those who think it’s not for them or they are not up to it. Keep in mind that I was 48 years old when I got my private license, so being too old to start doesn’t hold much weight with me. I hope this primer makes you want to try air racing and that your race experience is fun, and your flying skills improve noticeably. I urge everyone to try it at least once, and be careful; you may get ‘bit’.

II. Flight Planning and Navigation

Get started by gathering together some basic tools that will stay with you throughout your racing career. Here is a handy list of some indispensable tools if you are going to race, and even if you’re just cruising around.

  • A clipboard to keep your fly-by instructions organized and handy.
  • Marking pens or tape that enable you to see through them to what is printed on the chart.
  • A magnifying glass so you can read those itty-bitty symbols and notes on the chart under less than optimal conditions.
  • String
  • Nautical ruler
  • Stopwatch
  • Scotch Tape
  • Pencils – sharpened
  • Analog watch with second hand

The first thing I do is lay my charts out on the floor covering the entire route then tape one end of the string to your starting point and the other end to your destination. Next, draw a very straight line from one point to the other using the ruler and a pencil (you will need to alter that line so make it erasable). This is your basic course. When racing, it’s important to fly as straight a course as possible. However, there may be times when you want to deviate, for example you may want to go around an especially high mountain, or some restricted airspace.

Timing is generally done by the race committee, but I like to keep track of my own time as well, both as a double-check of the official timers and to see how I’m doing along the route. The stop watch gets clicked on as I pass the starting timing line and off when I pass the destination flyby point. That gives me a total elapsed time for a particular segment. You can use your GPS to track multiple segments and get a time for the entire course as well. (The scoring section explains more about this).

The analog watch, just a wristwatch with a second hand, is used to mark the actual time at each timing line, and also various checkpoints along the way (see the section on navigating for more about that).

Now for the actual planning and navigation aspects. Plan your route of flight based on the characteristics of the plane you’re flying. My Cessna 172 does not climb well, so I try to go around high obstacles rather than over, even if it means deviating from my course. On the other hand, if the winds are favorable higher up, it could be well worth the time it takes to climb. These are decisions you have to make, and they’ll be different every time you race, as the weather conditions vary even in the same location. Take your penciled-in course and alter it as necessary to project how you actually plan to fly.

You would think that folding a chart is simple and not worth mentioning here, but it can make a big difference when you’re flying full-throttle through a checkpoint and need to find something fast. Keep your charts organized. I prefer to use two charts rather than both sides of one chart. Again, this comes down to personal preference. One thing I do recommend is that you fold the charts so you only see the area you are currently flying and not too much to either side. Some people cut them into strips, tape the strips together to make one long chart which then gets rolled or folded and is used much like a moving map display on the GPS. Experiment with different setups until you find one that suits you and gives you the information you need in a timely fashion.

Here is where the watch comes in handy. Try to pick checkpoints every 30 to 40 miles, or even closer, and write down the time on the chart as you reach each one. That way you can go back later and see if it all makes sense with what the official timers say. It’s a good thing to do every time you fly anywhere. You always know where you just were, and if you get lost, tell someone where your last known good checkpoint is and what time you were there. It will be easier to recover that way.

When selecting checkpoints, be careful what you choose. A lake, however large, may not be there during a drought. Conversely, there may be way more lakes than depicted on the chart during a rainy season. Lakes with dams on one end are usually there all the time and are a good choice for a checkpoint. Powerlines are not very useful on large flat areas because they are hard to see and there may be more than the chart shows. In the mountains, however, there is usually a very visible swath cut through the trees to put in the power lines and you can see them from miles away. Of course, airports along the way make excellent checkpoints, if the course goes where there are some. Roads with very unusual turnings can be useful, but be careful in the mountains and very rural areas because they are very hard to see and often there are many logging roads that never show up on the charts.

III. Fuel Management

Why is fuel management important when racing? Aviation fuel weighs about 6 pounds per gallon and each gallon in the plane is added weight. One of the aims during a race is to make the plane as light as possible so as to present less drag to the air that will carry you along. There are many choices for reducing weight other than carrying minimum fuel Ð among them are carrying less luggage, a lighter copilot, remove the rear seats. Scrimping on fuel is never a good idea, and I don’t recommend it, and I never do that myself.

This is probably the most important aspect of fuel management. Every plane will use much more fuel than during normal cruise and some planes will use even more than you ever expect. A good rule of thumb is to double your normal fuel usage and then add 50% more to that. For example, my Cessna 172 burns about 6-7 gallons per hour during normal flight and I would assume it would burn 12-14 gallons during a race. If the temperature is over 80 degrees, it will actually burn more like 15-16 gallons per hour.

A good way to find out is to fly the plane before the race and see what happens, especially if it’s a rental plane. Fly full throttle and go both high and low to see if there is a difference. Try flying in hot weather if you think the race will be run under those conditions (when are they ever not!). Even so, give yourself an extra margin. Landing short for fuel usually means getting disqualified and aside from being dangerous, it is not considered good form.

IV. Winds and Other Weather

Tailwinds are the desired type when racing. Anything that can help your plane go faster is beneficial. The winning edge often goes to the racer with the best weather briefings. Knowing where the tailwinds are can greatly enhance your ability to do well. Most race committees will arrange for weather briefings prior to the start of the race. Your job is to get sufficient updates along the route and, more importantly, to be able to tell just by flying where the wind is best.

Some racers hire professional weather services to keep them abreast of current conditions. This is most beneficial on long cross-country races, especially when the weather is likely to change significantly from one checkpoint to another. Professional services can be expensive and there is no guarantee that the weather or winds will be as expected. The best thing is to find out for yourself as you are flying. A laptop computer is a good tool to use along the way to get updated briefings from Duats. Most FBOs have computers in a corner for that purpose. And there is always Flight Watch (122.0) while airborne, because pireps are from people who were actually there and are a good source of information.

V. Flybys

The most exciting part of the race is the high-speed, low-altitude flyby. Race committees get special permission from the FAA for these maneuvers, and they are always conducted legally and safely. I’m not aware of any accident in the history of racing that can be attributed to a race flyby – that doesn’t mean there never were any, just that I’m not aware of any and the literature is singularly devoid of any discussion about it. Detailed instructions on how to conduct the flybys will be given to each racer at the start of the race. They usually include a graphic depiction of the course to fly, the airport layout, and any identifying items on the ground.

A timing line will be indicated so you know at what point to click off the stopwatch and write down the time. It’s also the point where the official timers are located and they’ll be doing the same thing. Study the flyby instructions carefully before taking off, and be sure you understand exactly what to do before, during, and after the flyby. You won’t have time to learn it when you’re five miles out and descending from 2500 feet to 500 feet, trying to locate the airport, and watching for other traffic all at the same time. Learn it well before taking off, review it when you are about 50 miles out from the flyby point and keep the graphic sheet in view of the navigator and pilot during the flyby as a double check on where the timing line is.

As soon as you spot the airport, whether five, ten or 15 miles out, line yourself up with the flyby course and be sure to have all the step-down altitudes in your head. For example, in the Palms to Pines Race, one of the airports requires you to be at 2500 feet over the checkpoint that is five miles out, then 700 feet at the approach end of the runway, then 500 feet at the timing line. Here is where teamwork really pays off, because the pilot can do nothing other than control the plane during this period and the navigator/copilot must give clear, correct instructions on each stage. One useful trick is to have the navigator call out the altitude and distance markers as you approach them (i.e., 5 miles, over Merced, 2500 feet; 1 mile, over the freeway, 1200 feet; etc.) so the pilot can focus totally on flying. The navigator must then turn her attention to the timing line and be sure she is set up to click and/or write at the correct moment.

The exhilaration of the flyby will infect you and stay with you for quite a while so be careful not to let it distract you from flying the airplane. After you’ve passed the timing line, the best thing to do is to pull back on the yoke and put your plane in a climb. The flyby instructions will include altitude and pattern information for landing, assuming you plan to land, as well as what to do if you are continuing on without a stop. If landing, climb to the specified altitude without pulling back on the throttle or you may shock-cool your engine and do some damage, let the airspeed bleed off in the climb and the engine slow down gradually and then reduce the power. Go out a ways and let yourself cool off as well before trying to enter the pattern for landing. If you’re an adrenaline junky like me you’ll still be shaking when you get on the ground, but your grin will go on for days.

VI. Cockpit Resource Management

This topic has been covered in bits and pieces in most of the other sections, so let me try to pull it all together here. Racing, if there is more than one person in the plane, is a team effort. It takes courage and determination to make it work, but mostly it takes trusting one another and a willingness to work together.

Teamwork starts long before the race date. The flight planning should be done together so everyone knows the course and agrees on the checkpoints. It can take a few to several meetings to get it all done and you can never start too early. And it doesn’t end in the cockpit, assign tasks for all phases of the flight, including ground work (pre-flight, fuel, cleaning the plane, attaching the numbers, etc.)

VII. Scoring

Simply put, in cross country speed races, high score wins. You can determine your score either on a leg or the overall event. Scoring is a function of distance, handicap and elapsed time. The first two parts of the equation are known before takeoff and will be supplied by the race committee, all that’s needed is to do is fly the course to establish the elapsed time. Your score can be calculated the moment you have the elapsed time, thus the need for a stopwatch to back up the noted real or actual time of departure and arrival flybys. If the navigator always remembers to start and stop the stopwatch, then failing to write down the actual time of both flybys is less critical.

For example, we often race a Cessna 182P with a published handicap of 146 miles per hour. Watch out here as handicaps and scores are in MPH, whereas much of the navigation is typically marked and flown in knots. Most races give you a conversion table to get from MPH to knots and vice-versa.

That last piece of data is to encourage you to try your hand at calculating and knowing your score as veteran racers like Fran Bera or Claire Walters know their best flown race, handicap and elapsed time. In a race such as the Air Race Classic, the contestants will be asked to submit a form at the end of the race which reflects all actual flyby times marked and flown in knots so that the judges can compare in the event of any discrepancies. Basically, the calculation looks like this: If the race leg is 287 statute miles and elapsed time is noted at 1:45:20, then speed is about 162 mph (you can do the actual calculation for practice and to get a more exact figure), and adjusted for handicap the leg score is +16 (that’s 162mph minus 146 mph handicap).

Winds are an obvious factor in scoring. Legs with tailwinds will reflect scores in excess of 20 (mph), whereas those with headwinds will demonstrate lower scores. Why 20 mph? For reasons others know best, handicaps tend to be set about 20 mph below the manufacturers published sea level full throttle performance. Therefore, to place well the selected aircraft must perform better than this 20 mph cushion. You can research past race results and you will see that winners usually have a score greater than +20. My earliest race scores were Ôminus’, which means I was actually going slower than my handicap!

Using this concept, each leg can be calculated independently. Early in your racing career, scoring will be a mystery, a secret the old-timers seem to keep from you. However, it is so very simple and I encourage you to try your hand at it as soon as possible using your GPS, E6B, or a flight calculator (zulu or GMT). Most modern GPS units will do the calculation for you for each leg and the overall race, all you need to do is program it and read the answers. The race committees usually supply you with the necessary formulas and conversion charts to calculate your own score.

Attachment A: Race Checklist

Here’s what Pat has to say about herself:
I’ve been flying since 1989 after I stopped skydiving. It was my way of staying in the air. With over 1000 hours and an instrument rating, I’ve been checked out in taildraggers and had a floatplane lesson.

I bought my beloved C172, Becky, in 1991 and learned how to do my own maintenance (all that is legal for me to do myself). I keep her hangared at RHV and try to fly every week. My favorite local place to fly is Hollister where I get the best chocolate milkshakes west of the Mississippi.

I’ve flown as far east as Maine and Daytona Beach, as far north as Fairbanks, and as far south as San Diego, although most of that was in Susan Larson’s C182 (Mikey).

reprinted with permission from the author.