AirVenture Cup Completes 15th Successful Event While It Confronts Potential Changes

by Geoff Sobering

The first group of race pilots and staff arrived at the Mitchell, S.D. airport, August 22, 2012, to prepare for the 2012 AirVenture Cup Race. The previous evening’s briefing had laid out the planned race course starting at Mitchell (MHE), proceeding southeast to a turning point at Pocahontas, Iowa (POH), and continuing northeast to the finish-line in West Bend, Wisconsin (ETB). The first look at the radar that morning showed a problem: a line of strong storms in Iowa and Minnesota stretching directly across the course.

No problem. Over the 15 years of the AirVenture Cup races, weather-related changes had become a well-practiced skill. The first option was to simply delay the race until the storms had moved or dissipated. A weather briefing from Flight Service (FSS) indicated that might not happen until Sunday evening.

Closer examination of the radar and consultation with FSS showed a possible route to the north. Moving the turning point from Pocahontas to Faribault, Minnesota gave a route that passed north of the storms and south of the class-B airspace at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP). However, the course to the West Bend finish line would pass uncomfortably close to the busy “Fisk Arrival” at Oshkosh and a number of Military Operations Areas (MOAs). Luckily, Jeff Lange, one of the veteran racers, runs a Sport Air Racing League (SARL) race from his home airport at Waupaca (PCZ), which is well northwest of the busy Oshkosh traffic. A quick call to Waupaca verified the airport would be happy to host the racers. Lange even had the finish-line briefing sheet from his SARL race to give to the Mitchell racers.

In a few, short hours the decision to move the race-course had been made, airports and the FAA were notified, the turning-point and finish-line crews were moving, and the racers were briefed on the changes. Only a few hours later than planned, the racers were off.

Since the first AirVenture Cup Race in 1998, weather and other unexpected conditions have been the norm. In fact, a race going “as planned” is a rare occurrence. One regular racer even wondered, “I don’t know why you guys spend so much time planning this thing beforehand. It seems like you always figure it out just fine Sunday morning.”

Despite the last-minute course change, the 2012 race was a huge success. The one thing the weather did provide was a strong tailwind. This was the first time a tailwind was present since the west-to-east course was started in 2008, and almost all the racers were happy to find they had set new records.

However, the race itself is only a small part of the complete AirVenture Cup event. Much of the attraction comes from the camaraderie and friendship built up over the years of competition. The Friday night informal dinner, the Saturday banquet/briefing, and the post-race awards dinner at Oshkosh are important parts of the event. Seeing the latest aircraft changes is another part of the occasion. Many times there will be a group of racers huddled around an airplane examining (or debugging) some new scoop, faring, cooling plenum design, or other system. Racing gives builders an additional impetus for continual tweaking and adjustment of their craft in search of that extra knot of speed.

Pilots have many different reasons for participating in the race. Not everybody is simply interested in beating other planes to the finish. All of the racers are interested in improving both the speed of their aircraft and their piloting skills to fly the best course. Many compete against themselves, trying to set new “personal best” records. The sides of quite a few planes have lists of past performance at various events painted on them.

Pilot skill level varies over the entire spectrum. Not surprisingly, there are some highly experienced racers, some with military backgrounds. Lee Bethel, president of the Sport Class at Reno, is a regular participant along with Dick Keyt, the owner of the Polen Special. In addition to the regular racers, there have been some notable celebrities: Hoot Gibson, Daryl Greenamyer, Bruce Bohanon, and Kevin Eldridge are some of the most recognizable. On the other end of the spectrum, Eric Whyte recalls one person who called about registering for the race, saying he would be there “assuming he passed his private-pilot checkride next week.”

The airplanes are as varied as the pilots. On the extreme end of the spectrum, there is a turbine division, and some of the planes are purpose-built racers like the Polen, Nemesis NXT, and Soneri. Most of the planes are high-performance homebuilts, like the Lancair, Quest Venture, Glasair, SX-300, and Wittman Tailwind. There are a number of various RVs and Rutan designs, too (in fact, there are two RV-only classes). While large-displacement engines and turbochargers are common, there are many more modest powerplants. For example, Jeff Lange flies his VW-powered Soneri (to a 200 mph record this year). Recently, there have also been an increasing number of Light Sport Aircraft in the race, including a Kitfox, Pietenpol, and Rans-S12S.

There are always some unusual aircraft that make an appearance. This year there were three Rutan Defiants. Tres Clements of Scaled Composites brought Burt Rutan’s distinctive Boomerang to act as a chase-plane. This was Tres’ second AirVenture Cup Race. In 2009, he raced in a Pietenpol.

When the race is hosted by Mitchell, the event takes on a much larger scope. The AirVenture Cup weekend is probably the second largest aviation event in South Dakota, second only to the Sioux Falls air show. The airport, fixed base operation, South Dakota Office of Aeronautics, and the Mitchell community are all big supporters.

“AirVenture Cup Saturday” at Mitchell is an airport open house, organized by the Wright Brothers fixed base operation and airport management. Over the course of the day a few thousand people will visit. This year there was a rodeo going on the same weekend, so attendance was a bit down, but 1500 people still stopped by to look at the planes and talk with the racers. The rodeo asked the race to participate, and they did a fly-over of the parade in the morning, and a formation flight over the arena in the afternoon.

Along with the open house, there is a Young Eagles rally on Saturday. Despite the lack of a local EAA chapter, it is a huge event. In 2010, almost 200 kids were flown. This year the 100-degree temperature and rodeo going on just down the road reduced the participation, but in the end there were about 150 new Young Eagles flown, mostly by racers and race support staff.

The AirVenture Cup Race has its genesis with the 1997 Denver-to-Oshkosh “Great Cross-Country Air Race” sponsored by Aircraft Spruce. Longtime friends Eric Whyte and Kjell Erik Anderson decided to enter with their newly acquired Piper Comanche. They had three goals: 1) Finish, 2) Fly non-stop, and 3) Complete the course in under six hours. They succeeded in meeting all three goals, finishing with a couple of minutes to spare.

The two immediately started thinking about how to run an even better race the following year. Eric Whyte was working at EAA headquarters at the time, and he mentioned their thoughts to his boss, Ben Owen, the Director of Membership Services. Quickly, Jack Cox and Tom Poberezny became enthusiastic supporters. The concept developed as a re-creation of the atmosphere at Bendix Trophy races. Like the Bendix, the race was to provide an opportunity to improve the efficiency of flying cross-country. It was also decided to focus the race on experimental amateur/homebuilt planes. At this time, EAA was getting involved with planning for the “Centennial of Flight” celebrations in 2003, and a race from Kitty Hawk to Oshkosh looked like a perfect fit. Poberezny suggested that it would be a good idea to run the race a few times before the “big year” to figure out the details of planning and managing the event.

So, in 1998, the first AirVenture Cup Race was ran from Kitty Hawk to Oshkosh. The 800-mile course limited the kinds of planes that could participate, and only 10 racers participated. Immediately they started learning about the weather. Storms appeared along the course and despite an on-site FSS briefing in the morning, racers ended up diverting. At the end of the day race-planes were weathered in at airports spread across five states.

Despite the problems, the group persevered. On the way out to Kitty Hawk in 1999, Eric Whyte made a fuel stop at Wright Brothers Airport in Dayton, Ohio (MGY). While they were there, he spoke with air show performer and fixed base operator, Bill Leff of Commander Aero. On race morning, it was clear flying from Kitty Hawk to Dayton, and terrible weather to the west. At 6:00 am Whyte called Leff and arranged for an intermediate stop. That was such a success it became the prototype for the subsequent races through 2003.

During that period, the race experimented with a number of different changes to the race format. One year they had a low-level time-trial with a police radar-gun to measure the speeds. This was a huge success and a large crowd came out to watch. Unfortunately, the police radar-gun was only able to read up to 199 mph. Luckily the announcer was Jack Watson, a regular racer with a flair for the dramatic, and he simply made up numbers as the planes went past. The crowd loved it.

The “Centennial of Flight” celebration in 2003 brought 86 planes to the race. It also marked the end of the 800-mile racecourse. Commander Aero was an enthusiastic supporter of the event, and the 500-mile Dayton-Oshkosh leg was much more manageable. From 2004 through 2007, the race used the shorter course.

For 2008, everybody felt like a change. One disadvantage to starting at Dayton was flying into the generally prevailing westerly winds, so a search was on for a starting point west of Oshkosh. The organizing committee started by drawing an 500-mile radius arc centered on Oshkosh and looking for airports near the line. They were looking for someplace with low traffic, a good fixed base operation, at least two hard-surface runways, and enough ramp space to park 50-100 aircraft. A number of airports were not interested in hosting the event. In the end there were about three candidates. Mitchell was selected for the following reasons: 1) a supportive FBO, 2) an enthusiastic airport manager, 3) no MOAs on the direct route to Oshkosh, and 4) a huge ramp area. It turned out to be the perfect choice. The facilities are ideal, and Mitchell embraced the race wholeheartedly.

2012 brought another change to the race. For the first time the race was run under the auspices of the Sport Air Racing League (SARL) instead of EAA. The biggest difference was the addition of new classes for production aircraft. This brought five new planes to the AirVenture Cup, including Linda Streetely of SARL and Yasmina Platt from AOPA flying Linda’s Grumman Cheetah.

The future of the AirVenture Cup is uncertain. The change from EAA to SARL sponsorship has brought the potential for many changes, not the least is the race’s name itself. The possible loss of EAA volunteer credit for AirVenture Cup support staff is another practical issue. However, there are 15 years of great fun and shared experiences, along with an enthusiastic group of organizers that will hopefully provide the impetus for many more years of races. At the awards banquet there was already discussion about alternate east-to-west courses for next year.

For complete air race results, go to:

EDITOR’S NOTE: AirVenture Cup Race cochair, Kjell Erik “Da Swede” Anderson, 51, died unexpectedly September 10, 2012, from a massive heart attack while at work. Anderson was a music and aviation teacher at East High School and Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin.

Two days before his death, Anderson made an emergency landing in his RV-6. He was flying with fellow pilot, Eric Whyte, headed north from Madison when an oil line failed. Smoke started to fill the inside of the aircraft. The two pilots declared an emergency and landed near Necedah, Wisconsin, and made the needed repairs to the plane.

Regardless of his focus, friends said that Anderson always was trying to help young people excel, achieve, succeed, or just survive.

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