Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 49 seconds.
With thousands of people at the Reno Air Races on the edge of their seats in the grandstands and aircraft screaming past each pylon, you can’t help but think to yourself, “How does someone get involved in this wild motorsport?”
In the automotive industry, racers often start by competing with go-karts, is there an aviation equivalent? Not quite. An Aeronca Champ or Piper Cub might be the go-kart of aviation, but there aren’t any events at that level that would prepare you for The Reno Air Races. Each hour in your logbook builds you up to the racer you become, with every landing, every turn, every experience, making you more proficient than the last.
The Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) runs an annual Pylon Racing Seminar (PRS) for race pilots to prepare, practice, and become certified to race in the National Championships. Once that’s complete, and you’ve received your certification, you are literally off to the races.
Skies caught up with Formula 1 air racer Blaire Hamilton at the Reno Air Races. Hamilton was named Rookie of the Year in 2019 and races a Cassutt Special, which she calls, “The Atomic Pumpkin.”
The Cassutt is a single-seat sport racing aircraft that was designed in 1951. Its slender shape makes for a fast and agile racing plane that reaches speeds of 170 mph.
We met at the Chairman’s Club, an area exclusive to air racers and their crew, where you can find a vast buffet loaded with delicious food and an endless supply of cocktails. The vibe in the room was electric, as esteemed pilots like Michelle Curran roamed around freely. The F-35 Demo Team was performing, and the tent rumbled with every pass as the day’s events drew to a close.
Hamilton completed her final race the day before, flew her best time of the week, and finished fourth in silver class. So we grabbed a couple of gin and tonics and dove into our interview.
She grew up on a farm in the Prairies of Manitoba. Her father, a crop duster, owned a Cessna 188 AGtruck, which they operated out of their home airstrip. She laughed as she described it as a challenging place to get in and out of, with hydro lines and trees around the bluff of the farm.
“To me, it was normal, and I didn’t realize it was dangerous until now,” she said.
Hamilton attributes her passion for aviation to her father, who would often take her flying with him. “He would set me on his lap, and I would have both hands on the big heavy stick and steer the plane to where he was going,” she explained. When reminiscing back to her beginnings in aviation, she said, “I always knew I wanted to fly – my dad did that with both my brother and I, and there was never a question as to which child was going to be a pilot. We were both the farm kids, and we learned to do things equally.”
But, little did anyone know that these early years would become the building blocks of an air racer.
When Hamilton finished high school, she took her Private and Commercial Pilots License and did a lot of flying between the flight school and her home farm. “I flew my Pacer everywhere. It felt like I had wings strapped to my back. I could do anything in that little plane, and nothing bothered me,” she said. After completing her Multi-Engine Instrument Rating and getting a job as a first officer on a King Air, things suddenly changed.
“All of a sudden, I was in a big King Air in a two-crew environment, and I was not enjoying it,” she recalled.
“I was not feeling the confidence I always had and no longer had the desire to continue down that road. It was weird for me because I thought I was so confident. I thought that I could do everything, and then I found myself in this environment that I was not enjoying. Looking back, I feel I was not mature enough or secure enough to do that, and that’s why I only did it for two years before I stopped.”
Despite this experience, her confidence flourished after spending a couple of summers crop dusting and flying sightseeing tours in a Waco and Stearman. After that, she never went back to flying for a living.
She and her husband (Matt Hughes ) were first introduced to Formula 1 racing after watching friends compete at The Reno Air Races. Their friends convinced them both that they should become air racers, and admit that it’s an intimidating concept to consider joining this specialized group of pilots.
“We never thought that, as an average person, you could air race. It just seemed like this holy grail of flying, with super experienced people,” said Hamilton. Despite this, the couple started looking for an aircraft and found, what we now know as, the Atomic Pumpkin.
She had heard nightmares about flying Cassutt’s, but her apprehensions quickly disappeared after her first flight. “Honestly, I got in that plane for the first time and bonded with it instantly. It feels like I’m strapped to a chair and have wings attached to my back. I love that comfort level with it,” she said. The following spring, they registered for PRS and haven’t looked back since.
In her first year at The Reno Air Races, she shared the plane and the race time with her husband. For that reason, they both had half the flying time, compared with other rookies. This year, she was the sole racer of the aircraft and still felt like she was new to it all.
“I went into it just feeling like it was still my rookie year. It’s been two years since my first race, and I feel I learned a lot of lessons. I had a really good outcome on my last race,” she said. “And although I ended up with a penalty, I crossed the finish line second, and it felt really good.”
With highly competitive air racers on her tail, she raced exceptionally well and managed an incredibly challenging week with poise.
When reflecting on the week’s events and the big takeaways, Hamilton said, “I always look at September as the highlight of my year. This is the apex of what we have worked for all summer. Having finished my last race yesterday, I know what I’m going to work on all next summer.”
Hamilton’s roots as a Manitoba spray pilot have had a tremendous impact on the pilot she is today. She reflected on her experience fondly and said she often misses it. “The only plane that I ever dream about flying, the only plane that I’m truly envious of, is an Air Tractor 502 (AT502). The airline folks don’t turn my head at all, but when I see an AT502 ripping alongside the highway, that’s the only aircraft I have to fly before I die,” said Hamilton.
We can’t wait to see her growth as an air race pilot and watch her next race in the 2022 season of The Reno Air Races – and hope others are encouraged to get involved in the air racing world after hearing her story.