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The Rocket Racing League

Do not bet against entrepreneur Peter Diamandis. Crazy as his ideas might superficially seem, he makes them work. Diamandis’ X-Prize Foundation led to the first successful private-venture spacecraft, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, and he is currently offering what will probably end up being a $25 million prize for the first truly production-ready, road-legal, 100-mpg automobile. Which, trust me, will happen.

On the sportier side, Diamandis and Indy 500 team owner Granger Whitelaw have invented a sport that they feel will become the flying Formula 1, the Nascar of the sky: the Rocket Racing League. While there’s little chance of this odd new aerosport ever achieving that kind of popularity—entrepreneurs, after all, feed on hyperbole—Diamandis and Whitelaw could at least make a go of it to the extent that mixed martial arts fighting, X-games, arena football and, for that matter, Red Bull aerobatic air racing have done.

The RRL’s noisy, colorful, rocket-powered airplanes will race in groups of up to 10 at a time, typically in five waves of pairs 20 seconds apart. The raceplanes have no power plants other than their rockets, so they’ll take off under rocket thrust and then alternately glide and fire, glide and fire. Races will consist of four-lap (20- mile) elimination heats totaling about an hour and a half, and since each airplane only carries a little more than four minutes’ worth of rocket fuel, there will be lots of pit stops.

In fact, fuel management will be the most important racing skill. Between pit stops, each airplane will spend about four minutes under rocket power and eight minutes soaring and gliding on a course that is roughly oval but has elevation changes of up to a mile in altitude. When a pilot chooses to add power and when to coast on the corkscrew course will be the key to victory, and this will abet serious competition.

What about using up all four minutes’ fuel in one enormous push? “You couldn’t do that,” says Whitelaw. “You’d go Mach, tear the wings off the airplane.” Thirty seconds of concentrated rocket burn is the most the raceplanes can stand.

The airplanes are modified Velocity sweptwing tailless canards, originally an experimental homebuilt based loosely on Burt Rutan’s Vari-Eze design. (Velocity Aircraft has already been acquired by the RRL.) During 2008, there will be a series of exhibition races before real competition begins in ’09. They’ll be held on August 1 and 2 at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc.; September 10- 14 at the Reno Air Races in Nevada; November 8 and 9 at the Aviation Nation airshow at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas; and on dates yet to be determined at the X-Prize Cup rocket festival in Las Cruces, N.M.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Pitcairn Legacy

Ask an American aviation enthusiast who invented the autogiro and they’re likely to tell you “Pitcairn.” In fact, Harold Pitcairn, whose aviation-minded son Steven died on March 29 at the age of 83, built under license aircraft based on the engineering of Spaniard Juan de la Cierva. But in the mid-1930s, the “Pitcairn Autogiro”—particularly the blue-and-yellow PCA-2 with the Champion Spark Plug banner running the length of its tailcone—became the best-known of the breed.

The autogiro concept never took off, figuratively. It had vestigial wings and conventional tail surfaces but achieved much of its lift from its helicopter-like rotors, which spun as airflow from forward flight (driven by a conventional engine and propeller) blew through them. Once the rotors got spinning fast enough during the takeoff run, the craft would lift off, fly reasonably well and could be landed vertically. Which was of little use except in an emergency, since it couldn’t then take off from the tennis court into which it had autorotated.

Some autogiro designers, including Pitcairn, developed transmissions that took power from the engine to pre-spin the rotors fast enough for very short takeoffs, but once you’d done that, you were much of the way to building a helicopter—a better aircraft in every way. (Don’t say this to any of the rabid gyrocopter homebuilders who love their little Bensons and other relatively modern designs.)

Ultimately, full-size autogiros didn’t cruise as efficiently as conventional airplanes while sharing their need for a run – way, and at the same time had some of the mechanical complexity of helicopters—busy hubs and rotors—without their VTOL capability.

Steven Pitcairn saw to the survival of his father’s honorable legacy, however, by restoring and flying the original Miss Champion, which is now on display in the Pitcairn Aviation hangar, part of the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisc.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Back to the Skies

Former pilot Paul Evelyn has spent the last few years using his digital camera, photo-editing software and a digital compositing process to bring static “gate guards” and museum aircraft back to life. “If nothing else,” he writes of his gorgeous images, “my hobby has given me the personal satisfaction of seeing these graceful fighters freed from their hangars and pedestals, and returned to the skies they once proudly defended—even if only in a photograph, and even if only to fly gracefully into the sunset.” To see more of his work, visit

Skua From the Depths

Nearly seven decades after British Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Casson made an emergency landing in his Blackburn Skua, No. L2896, in a Norwegian fjord, the plane saw daylight once again this past April. Located in 2007 at a depth of just under 800 feet, it was salvaged by a crane barge, assisted by a research ship as well as remotely operated submersibles. Once restored, the dive bomber will be displayed in the National Norwegian Aviation Museum at Bodoe. According to Klas Gjoelmesli, who led the challenging recovery effort, the Skua is on track to become the only complete aircraft of its type in the world.

Museum authorities point out that L2896 was one of about 30 Skuas lost over Norway during World War II. Casson, of No. 803 Squadron, was joined in the cockpit by observer Peter Fanshawe on June 13, 1940. They took off from the carrier HMS Ark Royal that day to lead an attack on the German battleship Scharnhorst in Trondheim Harbor. Their Skua was either forced down by a Messerschmitt Me-109 or ditched due to engine failure. Whatever the case, both men survived to be taken prisoner, spending the rest of the war at Stalag Luft III. There they helped to plan the “Great Escape” of March 24, 1944, that was later famously commemorated in film.

Flying Underwater

Down, down, and away” is the call for a new breed of aviators who want to explore the wild blue yonder of the oceans. Imagine banking around wrecks and sharks, or pushing a joystick and rudders to pitch and roll near coral instead of clouds.

Two companies currently offer custom-built production models of personal submersibles with wings, tail fins, ailerons and propellers so pilots can “fly” underwater using aviation principles of lift and drag. Venture capitalist Tom Perkins commissioned Hawkes Ocean Technologies (H.O.T) to build its Deep Flight Super Falcon for him to use with his yacht. Sub Aviator Systems (S.A.S.), which partnered with undersea innovator Phil Nuytten, is awaiting orders for the Orcasub, with its Lloyds-approved parts and the capability to hover like a helicopter. With price tags ranging from $1.7 to $2.2 million, both the Falcon and Orcasub promise to be quieter, faster and more maneuverable than traditional submersibles, which use ballast and are more analogous to an airship or hot air balloon.

Aviation adventurer Steve Fossett wanted to add to his world records by solo flying to the “lowest elevation” in the ocean with the Deep Flight Challenger, specially designed to withstand the pressures of extreme depth. Graham Hawkes’ invention was being taken from drawing board to reality when Fossett disappeared last year.

Both S.A.S ( and H.O.T. ( also offer underwater flight training in tropical locations. “You don’t need to know how to swim or fly” to participate in an ocean flight school, says Karen Hawkes, Graham’s wife and partner. “You just need a sense of adventure.”

“We can’t know who will be the Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart of this century,” says S.A.S. co-founder and managing director John Jo Lewis, “but their flight paths on this planet may well follow a course beneath the waves.”

-Lisa Sonne


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here