Who Maintains Those Extreme Use Airplanes?
March 23, 2016
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  • Ever wondered what goes into preparing an air race or airshow aircraft for a race or performance? Or, better yet, who maintains these airplanes, readies them for the next performance or race, and most importantly keeps the pilots safe? Here are their stories.

    Dax Wanless with Red Bull Air Race pilot Michael Goulian

    As a youngster Dax Wanless enjoyed BMX bikes and motorcycles and says, “I guess I always liked racing and high performance machines.” Being from Madison, WI, he attended nearby Blackhawk Technical College and afterwards went to work as an A&P at the Middleton Municipal Airport also known as Morey Field. It was there he began helping an airshow performer with an Extra 540. Wanless holds an FAA A&P/IA, a pilot certificate, and in December 2014 became the crew chief for Michael Goulian AeroSports. Wanless says, “I had a passion for the sport and happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

    During the winter of 2014/2015 the Zivko Edge 540 went through a complete rebuild, and it will again every year. Everything was disassembled down to the last rivet or screw. Wanless explains they maintained a very high weight consciousness during the rebuild and says, “If people knew the lengths we go to meet weight requirements, they’d be amazed.” The fuselage is constructed using steel tubing with fabric on the bottom and sides and a carbon graphite turtledeck. The wing is made of carbon graphite.

    A new carbon graphite cowl was built, wheels and brakes change to lighter weight units, obviously ounces matter and Red Bull has a minimum race weight for the airplanes. As an example they replaced most of the standard washers with thin washers saving a total of 1.1 pounds in the airplane.

    One of the more problematic aspects is engine temperature control. Wanless explained how they constantly make adjustments to the air intake and baffling to obtain the best engine temperature for an engine that runs at 2,900 rpms with a compression ratio of 10 to 1.

    Editor’s note: For the 2016 season Dax Wanless has moved on to a new Red Bull Air Race team.

    Race Week

    When asked what is most challenging Wanless responded by saying, “The whole thing is incredible challenging.” Race week goes like this: The airplanes arrive at the location in a crate on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday are unpacking and assembling the airplanes. During shipment they try to keep as much of the airplane together as possible but the tail section and the wing are removed. During reassembly they install the tail first and then with the help of five or six other guys the wing is set in place. Once together all the technical parts are connected: controls, fuel system, cables, and electrical units. The airplane is inspected, checked, inspected, and checked – again and again – always with a second or third set of eyes looking at everything.

    On Wednesday the airplanes are flown and the rest of the time is tweaking, adjusting, and setting the airplane in race configuration, which includes installing a certain amount of communications, video, and flight profile data equipment. Fuel flow, magneto timing, EGTs, and mixture are checked and adjusted. Everything needs to be perfect as a slight amount of magneto timing difference could mean a 3 or 4 horsepower loss.

    Wanless concludes, “The airplane is generally trouble free but we do keep about one of every spare part available on hand.”

    Chris Rudd and Clyde Greene with airshow performer Sean D. Tucker

    Chris Rudd is originally from Tallahassee, FL, holds his A&P certificate, and learned to fly in Alaska. He’s been an airshow mechanic for 10 years and says, “I got into it as a way of flying hot rod airplanes.”

    Clyde Greene is from Kansas City, MO, area and originally painted cars. Someone asked if he’d paint a World War I Fokker Triplane replica and that began his career working on rare airplanes. He holds an A&P/IA and has worked as an airshow mechanic for 30 years; 18 with Tucker.

    The Oracle Challenger III biplane has a steel tube fuselage covered in fabric from the cockpit back to the tail, a carbon graphite vertical fin, and aluminum fabric-covered rudder. The fabric-covered wings are built of wood and a carbon graphite cowling covers the 400 horsepower Lycoming engine. The Oracle Challenger III biplane has eight ailerons.

    Similar to the Red Bull racers, the Oracle Challenger III also goes through a complete disassembly, inspection, and rebuild every year. After reassembly the airplane is flown approximately 100 practice flights before being taken to an airshow.

    The Airshow Circuit

    Greene explains, “The airplane is really bullet proof and there’s not much we do during airshow season. We change the engine oil every 8-10 hours, and check the oil screen and magneto timing before every airshow. Vibration is the biggest enemy, even the slightest vibration. No matter how small a discrepancy may appear; a loose screw or the appearance of a working fastener, everything gets fixed or replaced – everything.”

    Green and Rudd are constantly inspecting the airplane and prior to every performance follow an inspection checklist. Greene says, “We are always looking, inspecting after each other, checking each other’s work, and then inspecting and checking again.” In order to keep the airplane “at the ready” Rudd says, “During the airshows anytime the engine temperature goes below 100 F. we start the airplane and warm the engine, and check and track all engine parameters. The airplane is always ready to go at any time.” Sean D. Tucker remarks, “My mechanics keep me alive.”

    Power and Thrust

    Lycoming Engines provides the power for all of the Red Bull racers and the Oracle Challenger III airshow airplane. I sat down with Mike Kraft, senior vice president and general manager of Lycoming Engines, and he explains, “Red Bull developed a specification for an engine to develop 300 (plus or minus 3) horsepower to be used in all the airplanes. Essentially, these engines are similar to a standard type certificated engine with predominantly standard certified parts in them.” Kraft explains that Red Bull wanted an extreme level of sameness and readiness in the engines, no matter what airframe they were in.

    Kraft admits the logistics of supporting Red Bull has been challenging for the company. He says, “Supporting Red Bull Air Races has stretched our limits and the limits of our staff in a way we don’t normally see in general aviation. This has been a good thing. It has sharpened us and it demands we maintain that sharp edge in order to be in the game. The logistics of providing this level of support with the operating tempo of Red Bull was tough at first.” To assist the race teams Lycoming provides two technicians onsite during each race and there are at least two spare engines and one or more line replaceable unit (LRU) engine parts onsite.

    As for the Sean D. Tucker’s Oracle Challenger III, Lycoming provides Team Oracle with an engine kit because they require more of a personal approach with the assembly.

    Both Tucker’s and Goulian’s airplanes use The Claw, an advanced structural composite propeller, produced using Hartzell Propeller’s proprietary composite manufacturing technology. The Claw is the only certified advanced composite propeller available for aerobatic use. It is constructed of a unique combination of carbon fiber and Kevlar, with an electroformed nickel leading edge erosion shield. The composite structure is co-molded on an integral stainless steel shank that accommodates bolt-on counterweights needed for aerobatics.

    For the third consecutive year, Hartzell Propeller will be the propeller technical partner of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in 2016, utilizing The Claw propeller, carbon fiber composite spinners, and lightweight governors for every Red Bull Air Race team.