At the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, over 100 small aircraft droned, whined and roared as they zoomed in races at hundreds of miles per hour over the high desert floor; they maneuvered around giant courses, banking left around pylons that mark their turns. These aircraft range from tiny, home-built planes in the “sport” category, to full-on jets, to biplanes. All told, there are six different types of planes that compete.
The pits at Reno Stead Airport are where the planes, crew, and pilots hang out when they’re not racing, just like race cars spend time in pits. Here’s are some of the coolest machines we saw as we roamed the grounds under the hot sun.
Editor’s note: We’ve updated this post.
Jets round outer pylon four—located high on a hill some distance away from Reno Stead Airport—on Saturday, September 14. The jets in this category clocked average speeds around the course of more than 400 mph. Rob Verger
Pilot Lachie Onslow by an L-39 Albatross. This single-engine Czechoslovakian aircraft, made in the 1970s, hit around 440 miles per hour during a race. “They’re a beautiful jet to fly,” he says. It’s a trainer aircraft, as the two seats allow two pilots to operate it. Rob Verger
A North American P-51D Mustang. This “Goldfinger” aircraft is in the “Unlimited” category—and it can hit around 370 mph. Rob Verger
A Pitts S-1S. This little aerobatic red biplane weighs just around 800 to 850 pounds when it’s empty. Rob Verger
“Phantom” is a modified Mong Sport aircraft made mostly out of carbon fiber with a steel tube structure on the inside. This racing biplane won in the gold category at the races, with pilot Andrew Buehler at the controls. Its average speed was about 228 mph. “It’s a very demanding airplane to fly,” Buehler says. “You do not relax when you’re flying this airplane.” Rob Verger
This aircraft is a P-51D Mustang that flew in World War II. “Sparky” is a reference to a touch-down involving a landing gear malfunction, which resulted in actual sparks. Rob Verger
The “Dreadnaught” is Hawker Sea Fury, a British aircraft; it’ll hit around 455 mph. The engine is a 28-cylinder Pratt & Whitney engine that can produce more than 4,000 horsepower. Rob Verger
The cockpit of the “Dreadnaught.” This aircraft won the Unlimited class, gold category, racing around the course with an average speed of 403 mph. Rob Verger
Dan West built this little plane, a Vans RV-8, from a kit in his garage in 19 months; it’s in the “sport” class at the air races. It cruises about 200 mph, but it will hit around 250 during a race. Rob Verger
This shiny canister of nitrous oxide in Dan West’s plane is what he calls his “little blue soldier.” Deploying the nitrous makes the aircraft go faster, just like in the Fast and Furious movies. Rob Verger
West’s plane, from the front. He flies it using a center stick and rudder pedals at his feet. Rob Verger
More nitrous oxide! This sport-class Van’s RV-8 aircraft packs four bottles of nitrous inside, and each one weighs 47 pounds when full. Rob Verger
This miniature jet is propelled by a single small engine in the back that weighs around 40 pounds and will produce about 250 pounds of thrust. It’s not competing this year; Ryan Steffey built it and is the pilot. “It’s a ball to fly,” he says. The whole plane weighs about 474 pounds with no fuel on board and it also has an emergency parachute. Rob Verger
The cockpit of Steffey’s plane. He hopes that the jet could someday compete in a new, small-jet class. Rob Verger
Jerry Kerby won a race in this 1957 de Havilland Vampire; it’s a British plane. A retired lieutenant colonel, he flew F-15Cs for the Air Force. This is his first year flying in Reno. He hit around 510 mph on the course. Rob Verger
This little Cassutt aircraft is in the “Formula One” category at the races; it’ll go around 250 or 260 mph. In a plane that small, the weight of the fuel, and even the pilot, is an important factor. Rob Verger
This Cassutt 111M is also in the “Formula One” class. It weighs 550 pounds and is about 20 feet long by 20 feet wide. Rob Verger
Dennis Buehn and his AT-6C aircraft, “Money Trap.” It was built in 1942. Rob Verger
The engine of a 1943 T-6 “Harvard” model plane, built in Canada. It goes about 217 mph. Rob Verger
This is the tail of a PBJ-1J medium bomber, the marine variant of a B-25; it’s a historic aircraft on display and not a race plane. It dates to 1945 but underwent a 23-year restoration beginning in 1993 to reach its current form. Rob Verger
The Douglas C-47B SkyTrain is a cargo aircraft; this one was built in 1943. Rob Verger
Two modern-day F/A-18E Super Hornets on the tarmac. This type of aircraft, made to fly on and off aircraft carriers, will be in the film Top Gun: Maverick. Rob Verger
Another Super Hornet. Rob Verger
An F-16D sits in front of a C-17 Globemaster III. Here’s what it’s like to fly in an F-16. Rob Verger
The dual engines of a F-15C. Rob Verger
Members of the Civil Air Patrol check out an F-15C. Rob Verger
Popular Science was on the ground (and in the air) in Nevada covering the Reno air races. Check out our by-the-numbers breakdown of the high-speed aviation competition in the desert, a look at what it’s like to fly upside down, and a glimpse at the past and future of the planes fighter pilots train in.