Coachlines - October 2023

30.10.23 Hugo Cowley

An awe-inspiring experience at the Reno Air Races


Rare Bear, Strega, Voodoo and September Fury are all names synonymous with the annual National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada in the US. But to me there’s one aircraft that stands out, writes Aerospace Award winner Hugo Cowley.

Built in the early 1980s by pairing a Hawker Sea Fury T20 fuselage to a Pratt & Whitney R4360, Dreadnought took the air racing world by storm, and 40 years later I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams working on Dreadnought, 924 and Argonaut with the Sanders’ team at the last Reno Air Races event. However, this September, I found myself in exactly that position.

I currently work as part of a three-man team returning Navy Wings’ Sea Fury FB11 (VR930) back to flying condition. As part of this return to flight, the decision was made to fit the aircraft with a Pratt & Whitney R2800 in the form of a quick engine change kit supplied by Sanders Aeronautics.

After opening a dialogue with Sanders during its visit to RNAS Yeovilton in July 2023 I was invited out for two weeks, working as part of its pit crew for the last ever Reno Air Races to learn more about operating Sea Furys with R2800 power-plants.

Upon arrival I was put straight to work helping service all three Sea Furys with fuel, oil and oxygen ready for their flight up to Reno Stead Airport for the upcoming races. Once complete we started loading up the three trailers’ worth of equipment required to operate including GPUs, air compressors, staging and a whole array of spares and tools.

My day finished with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly in the back seat of the Centaurus-powered T20 Sea Fury which is something I’m extremely grateful to the Sanders family for allowing me to do.

Nothing can prepare you for the spectacle and scale of Reno. The pits stretch for what feels like a mile, brimming with all manner of aircraft from Mustangs to Warhawks, jets to cubs, it truly does feel like the Mecca of aviation. The races themselves started on Monday with check flights and G force tolerance laps which are required by all competing pilots to ensure they are adjusted to pulling sustained G force. Due to these we were rather busy turning the aircraft round for multiple sorties per day.

As VR930 is powered with an R2800 engine I was placed as part of a crew working on Argonaut which is another R2800-powered Sea Fury FB11 (with some racing modifications such as ADI and water spray bars). Seeing aircraft travelling at speeds in excess of 300mph 100ft off the ground while being mere metres away from each other is incredible, a sight you won’t see anywhere outside of the high desert.

As the week progressed, we went into qualifying and of course the heats, building up to the Unlimited Gold Final on Sunday. After every race the aircraft would have all filters removed and inspected before being cleaned and reinstalled ready for a ground run to check the next morning.

While there is no doubt about the awe-inspiring event that is Reno, unfortunately there are risks associated with air racing, this was brought to light when our final race was cancelled following the tragic accident involving two Harvard T6s. I can only express my deepest sympathies to the families of those involved.

Being awarded the Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown Scholarship by the Coachmakers has really accelerated my career, I feel without the award my trip to Reno would not have been possible. I am immensely grateful for the support the Coachmakers has provided me. Prior to the award I was working in general aviation and in the space of five months I now find myself working on historic warbirds which is a dream come true. It has given me a head start in this field and I aim to keep this momentum up, hopefully one day becoming a specialist in late war piston powered fighter aircraft.

As for my involvement with the Coachmakers, I aim to one day join the Livery so that I may help and inspire future engineers in the way I have been inspired and supported.

Overall it was an amazing experience I am extremely thankful for, being able to fly out to Reno and work with arguably the greatest team to have competed at the event was a real privilege, I must extend a big thank you to Joel, Shannon, and the whole team at Sanders Aeronautics for allowing me to participate in the last ever Reno Air Races while making me feel part of the team from day one. I learnt a host of new information regarding maintaining and operating historic aircraft which I am looking forward to taking back to my current task of returning VR930 back to flying condition with Navy Wings.