My Introduction to Air Racing
#25 #3 #32 #25 (again) #31 #21 #40
I was introduced to Air Racing by my friend Mr. Harwood H. (Skip) Hellen in the early 1960's. This occurred after Skip had allowed me to fly his Starduster as my first single seat open cockpit aircraft experience. He did this after he bought the airplane but before he had flown it himself. Then as he became comfortable in his airplane and as Air Races such as Lancaster and Reno showed up he got interested in participating. His ideas for engine development and my A&P skills were used to 'hop-up' his O290G and racing we went. From Lancaster, CA I was tasked to drive (at near racing aircraft speeds) to Torrance so that our friend Simon DeVos could spend part of his Saturday night at his airport prop shop repitching Skips propeller for some increase in RPM. In 1966 at Reno Stead Skip was running about mid pack. During a pre-race day he guided me and his airplane to the starting line and told me to go give it a few laps. Hesitant as I was it took a minute for me to grasp his intent. However, once I was on course it took waving me off course with flags, after 10 or so laps. Skip told me afterward that he had run around the pit area to find then PRPA President Bob Downey. Skips rendition of their conversation follows- Skip "See that airplane flying the course so well?" Bob "Isn't that yours?" Skip "Yes, that's Tom Aberle flying it" Bob "Looks like he's doing a fine job out there". That is how I became qualified in the Sport Biplane class. 1967 saw Skip & I at Reno with his Starduster and its fresh engine and I was allowed to race one of the two heats. On the second lap at pylon 5 wake turbulence rolled me left nearly inverted while I added more/more/more aileron in the attempt to correct the roll- I finally reached the aileron stop and the view forward between the wings consisted of nothing but desert so I stuffed some rudder into it which immediatly produced an abundance of corrective measure, in fact the response approached 1/2 of a snap roll. Mom was there and saw it and she still talks of that day. 1968 saw Skip's son pitching baseball in Florida with a Dodgers farm team and he needed to be there, so guess who was allowed to enter and race the Event at Reno! Those days most biplanes did not have names and #25 was all Skips had and it seems that the airplane was a "Consolation" (as it was then called) race winner. I raced in a field including Clem Fisher, Bruce McIntyre, Dr. Sid White, Bill Boland, Fred Rechenmacher, Dallas Christian, Bud Smith, Don Jansen, and all of the others in the class at that time. Then as today the class consisted of individuals of a truly fine quality with varied personalities and there was an in-class friendliness nearly unmatched.
Skip sold #25 so I moved to another Starduster, #3 'Fam Dancy' owned by Gordon Renfroe and Bill Michael. It was commonly known as the Lead Sled and my powerplant changes did not help it much. We raced in St Louis (last in the main), Orange County International Raceway (an exhibition event) and Reno 1969 finishing fourth in the consolation.
In 1974 my friend Tony Ostermeier had a single seat Starduster and was telephoned from Reno by his former employee Lee Mahoney, owner/builder of the Sorceress Racing Biplane. The class had fielded only 8 airplanes that year and they requested that Tony bring his Starduster. Tony had not the time so called me and I hastily prepped it (3 days) and took it to Reno. This airplane truly deserved a (Lead Sled) moniker in that it weighed 1013# empty! However, this airplane was beautiful. RARA allowed us to make up the heats as we chose and run the consolation with myself as the only legal entry, that is to say there were 7 fill ins from the main event running in the consolation race. They inverted and staggered the start in an attempt to provide some spectator appeal but nearly everyone still lapped me before the checkered flag. The other 8 aircraft went home quite well off that year since they were allowed to collect place money from the Consolation race as well as their purse from the Main event.
In 1978 Don Perri brought his #26 Mong (previously owned by Bud Smith) to Mojave where he raced #26 and on site bought Bill Bolands old #3 Gone Mong, now #32, from then owner R.J. Odgers. Don had been steered toward me by Stan Brown and Monday after the race Don called me to see if I would go to Mojave to collect up his new racer. I had literally drooled over the likes of the Boland and Christian Mongs back in the 60's and I jumped at the chance. After some engine work for Don on #32 we agreed to enter his #26 and his #32 Mongs at Reno and we would meet there, and he would fly it for the first time and choose which one he would race, allowing me the other in which to compete. At Reno he flew #32 and decided he did not like the airplane. This was fine with me. After the race Don elected to leave #32 at Stead Airport and seek a buyer. December 14 of that same year Don called again saying the hangar rent at Stead was breaking him and, would I please go pick up the airplane. We struck a deal and I was off the next day. Some months later Don moved to Arizona and requested that I deliver #32 there, which I did. No small chore in an airplane with little fuel and no compass I must add, especially the section of AZ between Parker and Prescott. My chase plane was a Twin Bonanza and our destination Cottonwood since Don lived in Cornville. The trip to Cornville is a whole story in itself.
#26 today with owner Andrew Buehler. The airplane is receiving extensive modifications for Reno 2002. This work is being accomplished at Aberle Custom Aircraft, Fallbrook. Photo shots by yours truly.
About a year later Don called saying that he had broken his #26 and not yet sold #32. He inquired as to my interest in trading my work to repair his #26 in return for my acquisition of #32. Again, we struck a deal and in some months #32 was again in my hands, this time also in my name. Since I was not well funded this deal took some gymnastics. After making the deal with Don, I mentioned my dilemma to customer/friend/hangar tenant Doug Devereaux. He agreed to fund the parts cost for the repairs to #26 in return for a 'non flying 49%' partnership in #32 with payback to be no later than the future date of my sale of the airplane. What a friend indeed! Then all I had to do was, do/supply the work to repair #26.
NOW I had a Racer! But what a delapidated machine it was. The airplane had sat outside in the Arizona sun in Cottonwood. It had washboard plywood skin on the wings, black widow spiders in the wheel pants, the tail wheel had been installed into the rudder and the brakes were early Rosenhan shoe/drum type which on the very best of days only one of the four shoes would actuall apply SOME braking. I first operated the airplane at Compton, CA. I would tiedown the airplane, prop it to start the engine, untie it and place a small rock forward of the tail wheel, enter the cockpit, check the taxiway for traffic and when it was clear gun the throttle to jump the rock. Then I had minimal, and as mentioned above I do mean minimal, braking so as I approached the takeoff end of the runway I visually checked for traffic on final approach and if it was not clear I would taxi around and around the gas pit as many times as necessary until it was clear, at which time I could take the runway. On the runway I could increase the power to runup RPM, quick check the mags 'on the roll' and then apply full power for takeoff. The taxi and takeoff were quite an event themselves since with the tailwheel IN the rudder the steering was abruptly sensitive which prompted me to lift the tail on takeoff ASAP at which time it required nearly full rudder deflection to maintain directional control. Oh the joys of owning and flying a once successful but long neglected Racer.
I raced this airplane first as #32 at Mexicali Mexico in January and December of 1980, and as #25 "Two Bits" at Porterville, CA in 1980. The trip to San Marcos, Texas for another race was stopped short of the destination due to mishaps/accidents. The rebuild produced the 'T' tail configuration seen at Reno 1981 and 1982. Another mishap/incident in Murietta, CA produced a second and more complete rebuild out of which came #31 'Long Gone Mong' which I raced at Reno in 1987, 1988 & 1989. As time permits I will add to this page the stories of its development and of my mishaps in it along the way. I cannot express the pride I felt that day in 1987 when, early in Reno race week Bill Boland showed up at #31's side. Having looked over the airplane quite thoroughly he stated "you took an old dog and turned it into a beautiful thing". After campaigning the airplane 2 years it was sold but I was tasked to race it for the new owner, at Reno in 1989. The airplane was again sold, this time to Patti Nelson-Johnson. Her first flight produced major damage to the machine, after which I did the repairs for her and delivered it to Reno Stead in its present Yellow/Blue/Red colors with its new name 'Full Tilt Boogie'. I understand that one of the first flights after my repairs produced additional, substantial damage which was repaired locally at Reno. I do not know for sure but have been told that Patti donated the airplane to a museum, supposedly in Florida.
Earl Allen, a professional pilot for (then) airline Southern Air Transport, had for some years raced the #21 Pitts Special "Class Action" for its owners. He decided after the 1998 Reno races that he would no longer compete. He was kind enough to recommend that the owners contact me about racing the airplane for them. Early in 1999 my son Jerry and I drove to Earl's hangar and trailered #21 home to Fallbrook, CA. We hastily assembled the airplane and flew it a bit before Reno '99 where we placed 3rd at just over 200 MPH. Several modifications through the year put us into 2nd place in 2000 at 206+ MPH and we all know about Reno 2001.
A limited budget for 2002 placed us as the third looser, that is to say we placed 4th. Plans are on the slate for some changes to #21 for Reno '03 so we will just have to wait and see the results.
We are optimistic.
Tom & Jerry Aberle