Reno Air Racing: Thunder mustang Update!

Critical Mass Returns

08/18/99 "Inside Air Racing" UPDATE

We've sometimes called last year, the year of the Sea Fury.... Maybe we should start calling this year, "the year of the comeback"! Three major competitors not seen at the 1998 Reno Air Races will return for the '99 event. Reno '97, with its furiously windy Sunday finals, was just plain hard on hardware. Rare Bear's engine let loose, during the very exciting Gold Finals, precipitating their languishing in a Stead hanger for over a year.... Strega dinged her prop (and other items-ouch!) after winning the event, causing her to stay over as well...

The demonic looking Critical Mass, was able to get home after her somewhat less traumatic incident in the 1997 Silver finals.... Coming into the pits looking as though a piston had launched through the cowling, the outlook for the Critical Mass Air Racing Team wasn't good in most pit observers eyes... The damage looked bad, but was not... critical .... A series of metal fatigue cracks simply picked a really bad time to merge, the result was a really big piece of cowl blowing away in the slipstream. The damage was not bad enough to keep the airplane grounded for long, but it was apparent to the Critical Mass team that it was time to take a really good look at the racers cowl setup.... And much more.

We've talked of crews racing the passing of the seasons, weighing time against needs....... When we talked with Critical Mass team members last year, the effort was well underway to get the airplane to Reno '98.... As with all improvement projects on racing airplanes, time is what is often needed most and sometimes there simply is not enough. As the clock ticked down towards the 1998 event, the decision was made.... Critical Mass would not enter into the fray...... this time.....

The main part of the upgrade project we've all heard about to date, is the new engine being installed on this highly modified Hawker Sea Fury. As always, a new powerplant is never "just" a new power plant. Many new, improved, components wind up going in during a project such as this and the new improved Critical Mass is no exception...

We talked with Critical Mass owner, the man who will fly her for the 1999 event, Tom Dwelle, (welcome back Tom!) earlier this year and got a progress report on the work to date. "Things are progressing nicely, but not as fast as I had hoped. The new engine is installed and all the pumps and 28vdc motors are being overhauled. This is a very slow process as the batteries have been moved forward and the new oil tank has been installed behind the fuel tank and in front of the pilot." As we mentioned, new stuff means more new stuff and Tom brought this thought home as the progress report continued..... "The 1 1/2 inch oil lines run down each side of the cockpit - outside of the fuselage - at the wing root, necessitating a complete rebuild of the forward fuselage outer skin. We have added strakes aft of the trailing wing root."

We had heard that the old B-26 cowl that came apart at Reno '97 was being done away with on Critical Mass and asked Tom about this weak link in the airplane.... "The W.W.II B-26 cowl has been replaced by a modified DC-7 cowl and much stronger cowl brackets. All dzus fasteners have been replaced by stainless steel "mushrooms" and recessed allen cap screws with rebuildable floating nut plates. We should be able to cowl up in several minutes instead of several hours."

Inside Air Racing has had the opportunity to observe closely the process of bringing about major changes on air racers... It boggles the mind to see the depth of effort and detail that goes into these beautiful machines. Every detail counts and attention to detail is what makes a beautiful airplane a fast racer.... Tom continued: "Believe it or not, one of the hardest projects was the exhaust system. I bought a TIG welding system and Larry Klassen (T-6 race motor guru, and Eddie Van Fossen crew Chief) hand crafted the entire system on the engine before we hung it. We're talking about a 4 week deal! The intake ducting system now emanates from the wing roots (both sides) up into a big "Y" and into a huge carb."

We were somewhat surprised when we first learned of fuel injection systems not really being in favor in race airplanes.... The Levitz-Rogers, Miss Ashley II, Team removed the fuel injection system in favor of carburation.... The Critical Mass Team also decided in favor of the old "tried and true" carburetor.. "The fuel injection was removed from the R3350-93 engine because it was an integral part of the "monkey motion" associated with the power recovery turbines (PRT). I have never seen a turbo compound engine complete a lap at Reno and I didn't want to fool with that."

The new engine installed in Critical Mass, is very similar to the engine in a major favorite at Reno.. None other than Lyle Shelton's Rare Bear....Right down to the "slow nose case" from the "Super Connie" which allows for more efficient prop speed/engine speed combinations.... The Bear does run a nitrous system, as do some other racers... Just how close to a Rare Bear "clone" engine will the Critical Mass radial be?.....Tom Tells us, "Dave Cornell has built a state of the art nitrous system, but we will not install the bottles this year. That is just one too many variables. Dave is very good. He has had his hand in virtually everything."

The cowl coming apart at Reno '97 caused damage to other parts of the airplane... We saw some pretty nasty pieces sticking out of places they ought not to be when we took a close look at CM two years ago.... Just how bad was the damage from the incident? "When the B-26 cowl came unglued during the gold race in 1997 it hit the vertical stab and the right horizontal...doing considerable damage right back to the spars. This has all been fixed by Jim & Art ("Tin men")."

Tom was very complete in his rundown on the work being done and the progress to that point [earlier this year].... He also was very sentimental about certain parts of this wonderful airplane...."The vertical stab has been completely re designed in accordance with Bruce Bolland's instructions. You will know that Bruce (Lockheed Skunk Works) is no longer with us, but he is all through our airplane, as well as many others. We think of him often. Pete Law carries on the work."

We spoke with Tom and, son, Ken Dwelle, at the Pylon Seminar [rookie school] last June.... Things were moving along smoothly, though, as expected, the airplane was not ready for test runs at that time.... The pictures on this page of the work in progress were generously provided from the Critical Mass photo album by Tom and his son. Tom is very low key about the performance expectations we should expect from the airplane, due to the many changes done to the powerplant and airframe, as well as system modifications. Little time for "full-on" testing is available for most race teams and many times the first extreme power runs with a newly built or modified race plane occur at the Reno event itself.... This is one of the most interesting things that goes on during the week prior to the actual beginning of racing. Virtually every minute of every day, from Monday thru Wednesday, you will see at least several airplanes in the air..... activity is non-stop!

This year, Reno is likely to have a very fast field, at least relatively, as the new layout may slow overall speeds. Just what should we expect to see from this newly re-vamped racer..... Her new aero mods behind the cowl, do look pretty fast, the new engine and nose case also indicate some pretty large performance gains.... But much is new, prudent teams move at a very deliberate pace..... Much testing of systems and documentation of results is the order of the day... Very much as in the process with a totally new aircraft type... Changes here cause changes in results there, attention to detail in this testing is critical, just what did what is the question needing answer... Tom fills us in on the Critical Mass Air Racing approach to this process.... " I expect to start testing in July and should be ready for September. We have a lot of new stuff and will not "press" this year. We will try to look good on the ramp and keep all the rivets flying in formation. If we can get qualified and finish the races in commission, we will have accomplished a great deal."

All this reporter can say is we're just damn happy to see this airplane back on the entry list for 1999! This airplane is awesome to see weather she's sitting still or flying.... Very highly modified from the stock Sea Fury "look" at first glance.... if you do not know what she really is underneath all these mods.... you might not readily recognize the Critical Mass lineage... She looks like a racer, and a racer she is. And... they simply have one of the best T-Shirt logo designs we have ever seen.... Ya gotta have one of these.

If you read many of the aafo, "Inside Air Racing" reports, you'll recognize that we're very keen on keeping the spotlight on racing team sponsors. Without sponsorship, air racing would simply not happen. the costs involved with bringing an air race entry to Reno are simply staggering, much of which is born by the race team. Help from sponsorship is a must in any race venue...... Sitting just behind the pilots head on this entry is the logo of one of our favorite fast foods...... Taco Bell! Tom gratefully acknowledged his sponsor....."Bill Allmon and Taco Bell of Nevada have been good to us. We couldn't have done it without them." NASCAR fans are a loyal bunch... often seen consuming race sponsor items in pursuit of that loyalty.... I don't know about you... But I'm sorta gettin' a hankering for a Gordita bout now.... We'll see ya at the races!

[ UPDATE: Since beginning writing on this article, Tom Dwelle has informed us that the airplane is running and sounding quite awesome.... Stay tuned for more!]

We thank Dwelle's (Tom, Tom Jr. and Ken) [and all the Critical Mass Air Racing team members] for keeping us abreast of the progress on this popular Reno entry and particularly, Tom, for making sure we did not get too much sun at the 1999 pylon seminar.... (we were REALLY gettin' red and Tom made sure this senseless, sun worshipper put on a hat for protection!)

[editors note: We've got a bunch more team updates to get out before the action begins at Reno '99! We'll bang the keys till they smoke and keep the scanner humming until we get 'em all out to you. Staffing difficulties this year have limited our progress, to date, in getting all the information we have on file out to you... We'll knock them out... proof em and send them up.... just as soon as we can....See you at the races!]

The 1999 Reno National Championship Air Races Will Be Held September 16-19 At Stead Field, Reno Nevada. Qualifying and Practice Events Run September 13-15 And Offers Some Of The Most Exciting Action Of The Entire Week. For Ticket And Lodging Information go to:

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