Each September, tens of thousands of spectators flock to Nevada to watch precision pilots chase one another around pylons rising 50 feet off the desert floor.
Matt Burrows made his first pilgrimage there to watch in 1978, the same year he got his own pilot’s license.
“The weather was so bad that I didn’t go back until 2007,” he said.
By then, Burrows was an accomplished airplane mechanic and aerobat, and could imagine himself jockeying for position while negotiating hairpin turns.
But it took another six years to turn his dream into reality, which explains the name Burrows gave the custom biplane he’ll be flying in this year’s National Championship Air Races: “It’s About Time.”
Pilots from around the world will compete in six divisions. Besides the biplane class, where air speeds reach 200 mph, there’s a T-6 class (225 mph), Formula One class (250 mph), sport class (350 mph), jet class (500-plus mph) and an unlimited class (also 500-plus mph).
Burrows’ two-seater will be among the slowest of the 20 entries in the biplane division.
“My goal is to just go down and have a good time, fly a safe course, and build a customer base in the race-aircraft field,” Burrows said. “But I’d like to go back in a few years with a faster airplane and bring back the gold.”
Burrows discussed the sport of air racing during a recent interview in his Deer Park Airport hangar while his 12-year-old son, Nicolas, patiently constructed a radio-controlled airplane from scratch.
S-R: How did you get into aviation?
Burrows: My mom’s side of the family started in aviation back in 1917 with Bill Boeing. My earliest mentor was a relative named Louis Marsh, who was the third engineer Boeing hired. If you go to Kirkland, there’s a Marsh Park named after him.
S-R: Where did you learn about airplanes?
Burrows: I started building my first real airplane in (Chewelah’s Jenkins) high school. My formal aviation education was at Spokane Community College, and I learned a lot working for an aircraft modification shop at Spokane International Airport for 18 years.
S-R: What services does your business, Burrows Aviation, offer?
Burrows: Aircraft maintenance, inspections, some fabrication and custom modifications, mostly on light, single-engine aircraft.
S-R: How many hours do you have in the cockpit?
Burrows: More than 4,000.
S-R: Tell me about the biplane you’ll be competing with in Reno.
Burrows: I designed it and built it with a friend, Bill Buteux, who taught me aerobatics in a Steen Skybolt he used to own. I’ve been flying it since 1999. It weighs 1,320 pounds and will do 202 mph.
S-R: What’s it worth?
Burrows: About $80,000.
S-R: What’s the entry fee for the national championship?
Burrows: Four hundred dollars. And the top prize is a couple of thousand, so it doesn’t cover your expenses even if you win. I’ll be flying in bronze class, the slowest planes in the biplane class. Some of the biplanes in the gold class cost $250,000 and only fly two or three times a year.
S-R: Which of the six race classes is most popular with spectators?
Burrows: The unlimited class, where they’re flying super-modified war birds from World War II – the heavy iron. They’re pieces of history going around an 8.4-mile course.
S-R: How long is the biplane course?
Burrows: Just over 3 miles. Biplanes fly six laps roughly 50 feet off the deck. The whole race takes about 8 minutes. In each of the two turns, you’re pulling about 3 G’s for 17 seconds, which slows you down. I’m hoping to average 170 mph over the course.
S-R: What does pulling three G’s feel like?
Burrows: You don’t notice it on the course, because the adrenaline is going. But it’s like taking a good dip on a roller coaster.
S-R: Do you wear special gear?
Burrows: A fireproof suit and shoes are required. I also wear fireproof gloves.
S-R: Is air racing anything like NASCAR?
Burrows: No, because in NSACAR they bump into each other a lot. With air racing, the No. 1 thing is safety. Keep clear of the plane in front of you no matter what he does. No flying below another aircraft. And make sure you’re at least 150 feet ahead of another aircraft before you cut in.
S-R: Still, you can’t eliminate all the risk. Twenty pilots have been killed during the national championship since 1964, including the 2011 tragedy when Jimmy Leeward’s P-51D Mustang crashed near the stands. (Leeward, an expert stunt pilot, and 10 spectators died, and 69 others were injured.)
Burrows: In the case of that crash, three or four screws came loose and took the aircraft out. That’s why I pay so much attention to detail. I’m always working on making airplanes safer and faster and more efficient, finding the one little thing that will improve their performance.
S-R: To qualify, you had to attend rookie school in June. What was that like?
Burrows: The learning curve was vertical, very intense. The first briefing, where they emphasized how serious this sport is, lasted 5 1/2 hours. They also wanted to make sure we could handle an airplane right-side up and upside down, and handle the G loads.
S-R: How long will it take you to fly your biplane to Reno?
Burrows: About four hours, with one fuel stop in Oregon. My family will fly commercial.
S-R: What does your wife think of your new hobby?
Burrows: At first she wasn’t 100 percent for it. But when she realized how excited I was and saw the quality of pilots and the airplanes, she eventually agreed to let me race.
S-R: What do others say when they find out you’ll be racing in Reno?
Burrows: A lot of times they go, “Isn’t that dangerous?” I tell them, “Yes, but so is driving Highway 395 if you aren’t paying attention.”
S-R: How do you relax?
Burrows: I fly.