When Orville Wright first flew an heavier than air craft in 1903, few people could have imagined F-22 Raptors and Boeing Dreamliners and drones and the now antiquated technology of a space shuttle.
If the Wright brothers had had a second experimental plane from the time of their first flight, though, one could imagine Orville and Wilbur racing them.
The National Championship Air Races hardly claims to date back to the beginning of heavier than air flight. However, the event taking place Sept. 16-20 at the Reno Stead Airport north of Reno embraces biplanes reminiscent of World War I and the barn storming shows of the 1920s, homebuilt crafts of tinkerers and inventors worldwide, heavily modified World War II warbirds and small modern jets.
Today, the Reno air races in its 52nd year are truly the last event of its kind in the United States, if not in the world, and attracts more than 150,000 fans over the five-day event each year.
Mike Crowell is the president and CEO of the Reno air races.
"The air races are one of a kind, and it's probably the only place you'll ever be able to see planes race head-to-head and wing-to-wing on a closed course," he said. "It's a great family experience."
A few events in the US claim to have air races, but those pilots are flying one at a time against the clock. A few more events in other countries feature slower planes on a closed course. Only at the Reno air races do pilots race head to head and in six different classes, including biplanes, Formula One, T-6, sport, jet and unlimited.
Greg "Shifty" Peairs is the air boss for the Reno Air Races. He described his job as being composer, choreographer and conductor. His job includes scheduling everything from qualifying and practice to the actual races to the air shows taking place between the races. He and his crew brief the pilots, both racers and performers, daily, and he spends race days in the control tower.
"It's kind of like an FAA tower, but we're more than that," he said. "An FAA tower worries about people taking off and landing. We do that plus we control all the racers on the race course."
Anyone who has attended the Reno races understands the need for communication and control. The pylon marked courses range from about three miles for slower planes to about eight miles for the unlimited and jets. They fly at an altitude from 50 to 250 feet at speeds from 150 to 500 miles an hour. He recalled the first an second finishers in the unlimited Gold race from last year with both planes traveling at 495 miles an hour.
"They were one hundredth of a second apart," he said. "I'm looking at it right at the finish line, and I have no clue who won the race."
With safety the ultimate concern, sixteen years ago the races instituted the Pylon Racing Seminar. Any pilot who had never raced on the course or pilots who hadn't raced in three years are required to take the seminar in the airplane class they fly in.
"They have to go through a fairly involved training session out on the race course," Peairs said. "They need to be evaluated to see if they can cut the mustard to race on the course."
The excitement in the sky isn't limited to the races. The air show between heats, and a big part of Peairs' responsibility, includes biplane acrobatics, jump teams and aerial dramas.
A major show this year is Tora! Tora! Tora! This reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 uses WW II vintage fighters and bombers and includes a large pyrotechnic display.
The Breitling Jet Team is this year's precision jet show. The team comes out of Sweden flying seven Czech-built L-39 Albatros military trainers used in former Soviet bloc countries And is the largest civilian precision flying team in the world. The Reno event is the last stop on their first American tour.
Not all of the action is in the air. A ground feature sure to be popular this year will be an expanded Drone Zone sponsored by NASA and the University of Nevada, Reno. Kids and adults can fly the drones and compete in races.
A static ground display will feature both the latest planes and perfectly restored heritage planes. Experts, including military personnel, will be available to answer questions.
Crowell said fans or media arrive from all 50 states and from about 25 foreign countries. The races draw heavily from California and the northwest for the family-friendly event.
"A lot of people come and bring their motor homes," he said. "We get hundreds of requests for motor home parking spots."
In addition, the air races run a shuttle from the major casino properties to the Reno Stead airport for a nominal fee.
The event producers and sponsors, including NASA and STIHL tools, are finalizing funding to film this year's Reno Air Races. The television show is expected to air in February on NBC Sports.
"We have a national treasure that we need to protect and grow," Crowell said. "We need national exposure."
The Reno Air Races foundation, Pathways to Aviation, plans to bring about 3,100 students of all ages from Washoe County schools on field trips to visit the air races.
"We're just trying to reach out to the school kids and make this affordable to them," Crowell said. "Some of them just can't afford to come out."
For more information on the Reno air races visit airrace.org.