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Article in "Flier Magazine" July 2005
The Challenger: race plane Wildfire
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Raw horsepower muscles instead aesthetics – no beauty contest can be won with this bird. But that had the creator of the Wildfire, William Statler senior, not in mind. The only justification for the existence of this race meteor: to shake up the Unlimited Class at the Reno air races. One has allowed a damn long time for that…

Text: Axel Westphal
Photo: Cornelius Braun

The whole thing sounds like a brand new project. Fresh off the drawing board as it were. In principle that is so. Better said: meanwhile again. Because its roots reach as far as into the seventies. Which doesn't mean the result of the long development time would be a particularly sophisticated devil's crate: From 1983 on for 16 years nothing happened at all. But for the crew in Seattle this means: No surrender. And to the very last moment William Statler senior was part of it. After all, it was his baby - the Wildfire.

On a Sunday in March the 83 year old welcomes us with his wife in front of the hangar at the Mojave airport, 100 kilometers north of Los Angeles. He is pleased that his entire crew has lined up on this sunny winter noon, to repair the retractable gear of the Wildfire - and about the team of journalists, which traveled the long way from "Germany", to take pictures and to pepper the Wildfire crew with questions.

William "Bill" Statler junior remembers 20 October 1983: "We looked pretty stupid at that time - our Wildfire just took off and flew away”, tells the older son and laughs all over his face. What so bad was about this? Well, the racer had never flown and wasn't supposed to for some time. The test program consisted of taxi tests at first and nothing more. “We learned later that the pilot had no experience with taildraggers at all. Also he had never flown an aircraft with a Pratt & Whitney two row radial engine.”

In retrospective the whole story still remains very strange to Bill. At the time, on the Mojave airport close to the desert of the same name in Southern California, this didn't appear funny at all to the team around William Statler senior. The unplanned hop ended without much harm, since the rogue pilot landed the precious unicate without damage. “Nobody knows why he didn't follow our test program. We had talked through every little detail”, Bill Statler wonders even today. In any case they have a real test pilot now: Dave Morss. He is known in the American race scene all over the place. Morss set 13 speed records and accumulated approximately 22,000 flying hours (on over 300 types). The 50-year old hunts in Reno in several racing classes around the pylons and is owner of a company, which tests airplane prototypes.

But 1983 – isn't this now already ages ago? Correct. The Wildfire project had almost become a never ending story. The Statler clan around dad William, the sons William and Richard as well as some friends from the Reno racing scene, had decided already in 1975, to build their own race plane for the notorious unlimited class. However, eight years after the unplanned test flight the team ran out of the monetary fuel – the racer was shelved.

An unbearable situation for the Wildfire race freaks. Understandable, if you have set out to stir up the most expensive and craziest race class, the Unlimited. So, 16 long years passed, until the family clan had scraped together new money and short-handedly founded a company in 1999, the Statler Air. Its only purpose: to finish the Racer and go to the start in Reno. But how is a race plane actually built? "You start with an empty sheet of paper," Statler senior likes to joke. The former Lockheed director, at the time, was responsible for research and development of everything that had wings or propellers. As owner of seven patents and as leading developer of the L-1011 Tri-Star, C-130, Jet Star, C-5, Electra, various helicopters and more, Sattler's brain has probably accumulated quite a lot of know-how to fill the sheet quickly.


Out from a safe in the farthest corner of the hangar the old man pulls his design book and shows it readily to the guests. Hundreds of pages, filled with fine pencil: static and aerodynamic calculations, propeller calculations, power analyses, sketches, tables and more. At last he reveals a few of the main features: “For the airframe we took an old T-6.” But they wouldn't use more than the front portion. For propulsion, the choice the double row radial engine Pratt & Whitney R2800-CA-97W was chosen. Two of these powerhouses were bolted off a Convair T 29 and were made into one.

To make sure the goal is clear from the start: The design book of the senior offers right at the beginning a power calculation. It shows that for 475 mph, that is almost 765 km/h, 2572 horsepower is needed. Already just for this the 18-cylinder double row radial engine was chosen, which, in original condition, is good for 2600 PS, and is known for its reliability; in addition there are still affordable spare parts.

Indeed, it doesn't make sense to start with a race plane in the Unlimited class, that can't do 500 mph. Because the prime category of pylon racing does indeed not know any limits – if we ignore the fact that the rules call for piston driven engines and propellers. The result has always been, that greatly upgraded warbirds with strengthened and sometimes shortened wings, with power plants tuned to the limit of sometimes more than 3000 horsepower, race around the pylons, and that the spectators are gasping with fascination. Here only highly tuned power is sent into the racing battle – the record stands currently at 470 mph (more than 756 km/h), flown by Rare Bear, am F8F-2 Grumman Bearcat.

Next construction cornerstone, stall speed. Not such an important topic, since most of the time one flies in the high-speed regime anyway, and the pilots belong to the best, who manage a landing with lots of speed. Sattler's design book shows 91 miles (about 146 km/h). Flaps are unnecessary ballast in a race plane, and even retracted cause drag. About the strange wing profile, that appears to be more curved on the underside than above, the old man's terse explanation is: “I have mixed the characteristics of several profiles” – O.K. he is kidding again. It is an NACA C4-212 B, twelve percent of thickness, indeed a development of the Lockheed engineer himself. "It is best suitable for sharp directional changes of direction at the pylons.

A load factor of 2.5 g is ideal in this case." The entire wing is also his own design, likewise the rear of the fuselage as well as the horizontal and the vertical stabilizers.

After so many large computer companies took their beginnings in a garage, the Wildfire team does not need to be ashamed that the rear fuselage and the engine support originated in Bill's car domicile. The wing was built in another garage; the landing gear was overhauled in even another private shop. The segments were assembled at the Van Nuys airport, on October 20, 1983 was roll out. Then it became time to move the fuselage torso to Mojave to the desert airport. “Here we have much more possibilities”, says Bill Statler.


As to accompany this statement, there suddenly sounds a hellish loud whistling, that, while strengthening, turns into an eardrum-damaging sharp howling tone. Turbine perfume fills the air, in the neighboring hangar a leisure pilot runs up the engines of his Fouga Magister for an aerial afternoon stroll. A few meters away a few older, beautifully restored MiGs, are hanging out, side by side with a Grumman F9F Panther. On an enormous area beyond the runway, airlines have mothballed their redundant airliners. The silhouettes of about 100 jets stand out in the shining desert light against the Sierra Nevada. Apart from that, the airport is well known as launch site for the first private rocket plane SpaceShipOne. Meanwhile the retract gear is removed, new seals are to be put in. The Wildfire, with its first base paint, stands dominant in the hangar, ready to jump like a large wild animal. She seems to wait for her first mission. "After the landing gear is re-installed, apart from a few minor issues, the Wildfire will be ready for takeoff. We hope that we can run through the test program with Dave Morss in the next months”, says Bill Statler, who as a studied aviation engineer followed the trail of his father and works as a leading development engineer at Lockheed Martin Aircraft.

Now it is the task of the younger Statler-Son Richard, to improve the financial situation. The manager of a telecommunications company knows what to do: “We just have to show in Reno what our Wildfire can do. Then we should find further sponsors." To show off in Reno, that would appeal to the senior. He will however not experience this anymore: William Statler died few weeks after our visit.

Caption, page 4: That is the Wildfire, a race plane of the Unlimited class. To the opponents: Remember the sight! At the Reno air races you might see the bird only from the rear.

Caption, page 13: Line up of 18 cylinders in two rows: Pretty much horsepower of the double star engine Pratt & Whitney R2800-CA-97W has to be accommodated under the cowling as space saving as possible.

Caption, page14: Bad visibility: Due to drag the drop canopy became rather small – the bolts make a solid impression.
Caption, page 14: Switchboard of “The Force”: From the modest, robust cockpit the 2600 horsepower of the radial engine want to be tamed.

Caption, page 15: Impressive interior: With the fuselage tank in the center of gravity, loading changes can be avoided.
Caption, page 16: The landing gear has left the ground already once – even if only for a short hop. But that one was more than 20 years ago.

Caption, page 16: How about “Fat Yellow Race Monster” as German translation for “Wildfire” (here as computer animation).

Caption, page 17: The rigid tail landing gear saves weight and keeps the building cost down. Its aerodynamically clean cover supports the vertical stabilizer.

Caption, page 17: What does one associate with the designation "experimental"? Correct, anything else than a mighty and elaborate racer like the Wildfire.

Chatting by the Wildfire
Story and photos by Bill Pearce
Originally published by All Aviation Flightline Online

Wildfire is one of the more unusual Unlimited air racers with perhaps the longest gestation period of any. The years of silence with this racer tucked away in a hangar in Mojave, combined with its mysterious first flight, have lead to the birth of many rumors surrounding its past, present and future. On a recent AAFO.COM assignment to Mojave, I had the opportunity to check in with Team Wildfire and separate truth from fiction.

Wildfire was conceived in the mid 70s to make Unlimited Air Racing more affordable and save the existing war birds seen at Reno each September. It is thought that with affordable Unlimited air racers, air racing as a sport will spread to other venues across the country while preserving WWII aircraft.

Former Director of Science and Engineering, William H. Statler, designed Wildfire and he is no stranger to air racing. Bill's first design was a Goodyear midget racer for Al Foss who built the plane in 1949. Foss raced it as "Jinny" #94. It was later sold to Jim Dewey and raced by his son, Mike. It retained the #94 but was now called "Little Mike". Number 94's last race was in 1970, but the airplane is still owned by Mike Dewey in Santa Paula, CA who is restoring it as a museum piece.

The Second aircraft to come from Bill Statler Sr's sketchpad was for James Kistler. Assigned number 31, it has a colorful history with many name and owner changes. Kistler raced as "La Jollita" and "Skeeter". It was sold to Art Scholl who campaigned it as "Miss San Bernardino". Scholl managed a 3rd place finish in the championship race of 1964, and 4th in both 1965 and 1966. Sold to Smokey Stover and renamed "Skeeter" again, race 31 soldiered on with another 4th place in 1967. 1971 Marked another owner, Larry Borrow. "Skeeter" returned to Reno in 1976 with Smokey Stover at the controls once again, finishing 1st in the Medallion race. Race 31 continued to pass through owners and around the pylon until 1984.

In typical Unlimited fashion, Wildfire is a low wing monoplane with conventional undercarriage. Its wing is an entirely custom built NASA airfoil, attached to a heavily modified forward airframe and a scratch-built aft fuselage. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-2800-CA-97W and propelled via a 3-blade airscrew, Wildfire is definitely a very distinct air racer.

It was the team's normal workday on the racer when I arrived. I felt a bit like I was in their way so I decide to let them work while I took pictures; we would sit down over lunch and discuss the racer. Wildfire was bigger than I envisioned it. Basically the aircraft looked complete but many little things remained unfinished and we all know those are the things that take the most time.

Working on the racer on this Friday, June 4th, were Bill Statler Sr., Skunk Works engineer Bill Statler Jr., Cal-Tech and JPL analyst Dennis Wittman, and mechanic and auto-racer Greg Austin. Slowly yet methodically the racer was coming together in the hot oven that is a hangar at Mojave, not far from Nemesis NXT and Scaled Composites. Missing due to work commitments were crew members Rich Statler, Senior Vice President, System Development, for the Mericom Corporation and Paul Novacek, Avionics Engineer and Vice President of Development for Electronic Flight Solutions.

Despite my small protest, I was treated to lunch by the crew and began the question and answer session to get the truth about Wildfire:

Bill Pearce AAFO.com: What is Wildfire?
Bill Statler Jr.: It is an Unlimited homebuilt raceplane made to be competitive, with new designs that did not cost a million dollars and would not start with a WWII airplane. I'd like to preserve the ones that are left. Behind that, we want to see racing grow and continue. I've been a fan since I was five and my dad has been involved since the 40s. We thought if we created something like this, more people would get into racing and the sport would grow. If we get air racing to grow, more people will want air racing in their town and someday we might have 4 to 5 events per season.

AAFO: Wildfire uses some T-6 in it, what is still left of the T-6?
Bill Jr.: Very little. The main landing gear and the tail wheel and that's about it. In fact, the wheels and brakes aren't even off a T-6.

Bill Statler Sr.: They're off a Sabreliner.
Bill Jr.: So the gear struts are T-6 and the tailwheel is T-6. That's the only thing on there that's T-6.

AAFO: Where did the airframe come from?
Bill Jr.: It's basically scratch built. We started with an airframe and beefed it up. From the cockpit aft is all new; the tail is new, the aft fuselage is new. We took a tubular structure in the front and heavily beefed it up, redesigned it, rebuilt it to take the loads and stresses that the R-2800 was going to introduce into this airframe. A lot of the stories are that we took an R-2800 and mounted it in front of a T-6 and that is not what we did.

AAFO: Explain the wing and the fairings?
Bill Jr.: The wing is built from scratch and is modeled after a NASA airfoil that dad found. The whole purpose that is behind the airplane is to maintain lift so we can maintain speed on a pylon racecourse.
Bill Sr.: The airplane has a wide wing cord and a low wing loading and that's to keep it from mushing out in the turns like most of them do.
AAFO: And the idea behind the fairings?
Bill Jr.: The original fairings that you see in the old pictures are ones that we slapped on just so we could go fly it. They were not meant to be the final design. Now we are redesigning the fairings with a much more aerodynamic fairing. The engineer will tell you all about those (pointing to Bill Sr.).
Bill Sr.: You take section cuts through the airplane and then calculate how much fairing area you need at each station to make a real smooth transition [from wing to fuselage] as they change size to go back. It is designed to aerodynamically smooth the transition from wing to fuselage.

AAFO: Explain the cowling and scoop?
Bill Jr.: Everything on the airplane is designed for a purpose and that big ugly scoop on top is to make sure we get enough air into the engine so the engine runs at it's best. Taking advantage of the aircraft's speed to ram air into the carburetor. It's a downdraft carburetor and the scoop creates a rise in air pressure and slams the air right smack into the carburetor; the faster the plane goes, the more air it gets, the more power it makes.

AAFO: And the cowl?
Bill Jr.: To make the engine as cool as possible.
Bill Sr.: And you have to let out the back what you take in the front.
Bill Jr.: Otherwise it will back out the front and create drag and you are not really cooling anymore. And that is also why we run the spinner that we do. It's small to let more cooling air into the cowling.
Bill Sr.: You have to put the cooling air through the cylinder fins. It does not do you much good to just dump air in all around the engine; you need to get it to flow through the fins.

AAFO: In your own words, describe the first flight.
Bill Jr.: I'll omit names. We made a very serious mistake on the first flight. A pilot came up to us and said he was a test pilot and wanted to fly the airplane. We thought it was great that he volunteered.
Bill Sr.: He said he was from the Air Force test pilot school.
Bill Jr.: We told him exactly what we wanted him to do. Taxi down the runway and see if the tail comes up.
Bill Sr.: First thing you ever do with a new airplane is fly it down the runway and land it on the runway.
Bill Jr.: Especially if it's a taildragger. We had the whole test flight program all laid out and he had a copy. If you get it to takeoff speed and the tail is not up, obviously you have a problem that needs to be figured out. Well, he came down the runway and went straight up. We have it all on tape. We were down the runway where we expected him to come by with the tail up and we could get it all on film. He got halfway to us and was going straight up.
Bill Sr.: He's the guy that put 200 pounds in the tail.
Bill Jr.: He gets it on the ground and he badmouths the airplane. He says it is a bad design and it has this wrong, it has that wrong. We found out that he had zero time behind an R-2800 and 30 minutes in a taildragger the day before. The money ran out after that and the words coming out of this test pilot's mouth did not stop for months. He told anyone who would listen how bad the airplane's design was and what was wrong with it. We have been living with that for 20 years. But it flew.

Greg Austin: Are there really that many rumors?
Bill Jr.: Oh, you would not believe.
AAFO: What happened with Skip Holm doing an engine run-up that resulted in a nose over?
Bill Jr.: It did not nose over. This was my fault; it was my personal fault. On the first flight, the test pilot insisted that we put an additional 200 pounds of ballast in the tail. That should have been a warning to us and we just did not see it. We thought he knew what he was doing. After that flight I told the crew to take the ballast out of the tail, meaning the 200 pounds the test pilot asked us to put in. All of it was taken out instead, so now we did not have any ballast in the tail. Again, I did not make myself clear. It was my fault; I take responsibility for it. So all the ballast was taken out and when Skip was taxing he taxied over in front of a big hanger. He turned and the propwash hit the front of the hanger and came back and lifted the tail. The prop just barely hit the ground, that's all it did.
Bill Sr.: And we have eyewitnesses and film that show when Skip went up on the prop tips, the elevator was at neutral; it was not up at all.
Bill Jr.: That's another problem we discovered. When Skip pulled the stick back to put the elevator down, it stayed at neutral. But it was my fault that all the ballast was taken out. The neutral elevator was not Skip's fault; he had the stick back. We found that there were some blocks that would not allow the elevator to move as it should have. But it never really nosed over; it just came up far enough to tap the prop tips.

AAFO: How much ballast is in the tail as it sits?
Bill Jr.: Well it's going to change. Right now we have 120 pounds and we have just put in a heavier battery in the tail and we put in a fire suppression system back there too.
Dennis Wittman: And we lost a prop blade.
Bill Jr.: Thank you. We are running a 3-blade prop rather than the 4-blade. The 3-blade prop is more efficient. We also took all the high altitude gears out of the blower. So we will have to do a weight and balance and take some ballast out of the tail. We will do it by weighing the airplane.

AAFO: Does Wildfire have a center of gravity problem?
Bill Jr.: No.
Bill Sr.: And the wheels are not too far back. They are just fine.

AAFO: Is the ballast solid; not any type of consumables like ADI, fuel, or anything else?
Bill Jr.: There is no bladder tank in the tail that we were going to fill with water. It is bolted down, solid lead ballast.
Bill Sr.: It is real easy to balance this airplane. All we have to do is weigh it and do it right.

AAFO: Where did the prop come from?
Bill Sr.: The prop came from a T-29, which is a military Convair 440. We used three of the four blades and it is a really efficient prop.
AAFO: Dave Morss is your new test pilot, how did he get involved?
Bill Jr.: He called us and wanted to come down and see the plane. We spend about 3 hours talking and looking around. He made us an offer and we took it. We are very happy to have him on board. He's a great pilot.

AAFO: Will he be the race pilot?
Bill Jr.: Yes, that is the plan.
AAFO: When will the next flight be?
Bill Jr.: When we are ready. For us this is not something that we will rush. There is still a lot of work to be done and without a major sponsor, the work is done when we can get to it.

AAFO: Will you make it to Reno this year?
Bill Jr.: A couple of months ago we were talking about if we got a sponsor that came through to sponsor the airplane, could we do that? Would we do that? And we thought that if everything goes well, we'll try. Here we are and September is not far away and we don't have a sponsor and we will really need a sponsor to help us with the flight test program and that's not going to be cheap. So we take it day by day now.

AAFO: If you can you will be at Reno?
Bill Jr.: If everything goes well and there are no problems where safety would be an issue, than we could be at Reno for static display only. The only thing that I want to have done other than all the flight-testing is a paint job. I want the aircraft painted for its Reno debut. There's a lot of work left; it's not impossible but we are running out of time.

AAFO: So safety is of paramount importance, which is what is should be.
Bill Jr.: That's right and another thing that we will have on this airplane is a telemetry system. Some of the other racers have a basic system, but we will have a very sophisticated telemetry system; 64 channels on this airplane. We are going to measure everything and some of the constant things we will be measuring is flutter on all the control surfaces.
Bill Sr.: We are going to read it right here on the ground. That guy up there in the airplane can't read it all, he can't do it all.
Bill Jr.: His job is to fly it and our job is to find out if there are problems that we need to fix.

AAFO: Czech Mate is powered by a R-2800 and is the 420-440 MPH range which puts it in the middle of the Gold. Using Czech Mate as a yardstick, how will Wildfire do?
Bill Jr.: We will be faster. The reason I say that is one; Czech Mate does not have our wing. Two, Czech Mate is based off a WWII era trainer. We?ll be faster. Their wing doesn't have the cord that we have, it doesn't have the lift coefficient that we have. As far as weight, it would probably be about the same. But there again, if the Yak wants to be faster they need to get more air into that engine.

AAFO: How well do you think Wildfire will do? What lap speeds do you think you will see?
Bill Jr.: When we are wired up and ready to go and the airplane is completely debugged so to speak, we will be in the Gold race every time. We will be fast enough to be in the gold race.
Bill Sr.: It's basically designed to go 500 MPH on the racecourse.

AAFO: Do you feel that is achievable?
Bill Sr.: Yep.
Dennis: It was also designed 30 years ago.
Bill Jr.: Yeah, when we designed this 30 years ago we would have been the fastest airplane on the course. People now have gotten a little smarter and are doing things a little different. Dago Red, they're getting speeds out of that Mustang that are incredible, it amazes me, just amazes me. More power to them.

AAFO: After 25 years, when you get to Reno, is it more important how you place or that you have made it; a project completed?
Bill Jr.: Winning is secondary. It would be nice to win but we are not going up there to win. What we want to do is introduce a homebuilt airplane that is competitive and will help the air races grow. In other words, to help air racing survive.
Bill Sr.: I would answer your question Bill by saying we're going racing to win. It might take another 20 to get there but we're going to win.
In one sentence Bill Statler Sr. sums up the entire essence of Team Wildfire. The Wildfire team has been a team longer than most of the other Unlimited racers, despite the technicality of never racing. Their dedication, determination, and attitude will be very welcome at Reno and any other racing venue.

Due to several reasons, the owners and crew of Wildfire have decided not to race the airplane at Reno 2004. First, racing in 2004 would mean rushing the flight test program, possibly at the expense of performance. Second, the team is still searching for, and speaking with potential sponsors to fund the project. A thorough flight test program as well as adequate funding is necessary for the team to exploit the full potential of the race plane. "We know what Wildfire is capable of doing and we don't want to settle for anything less than top performance", says Bill Statler Sr., designer of the race plane.

Obviously disappointed, the crew showed their championship team qualities by finding the positive side of the situation.

"This will give us the opportunity to conduct an extensive flight test program and be 100% ready to race full out at Reno in 2005. If we had rushed the flight test program to make Reno this year, we might have missed something important".

Being in unanimous agreement on this, the crew went back to work with the same intensity they had been applying to the project in the attempt to make Reno 2004.

Bill Pearce and AAFO.com sincerely appreciate the assistance and hospitality of Team Wildfire. We wish them the best of luck and are looking forward to seeing the team in 2005.
Please visit the Wildfire Gallery for additional images.

Wildfire Air Race Team Update

We are thrilled to announce that the Wildfire Unlimited Air Racer will fly again with Dave Morss, test pilot from Redwood City, CA., at the controls.
26,000 hour Sport Class Champion Dave Morss is a veteran Reno racer having competed in more races than anyone in the history of air racing.
After a twenty-year hiatus, new funding has been obtained which allows the project to go forward. The airplane is nearing completion and will begin flight tests this spring. If all goes according to plan, the team hopes to race at the 2004 National Championship Air Races in Reno.

This unique airplane was conceived as a racer and built to take advantage of modern aerodynamic technology. With a combination of proven power, low drag and light weight, Wildfire sets the bar for the next generation of Unlimited Air Racers. Powered by the rugged and reliable Pratt & Whitney R2800 engine with a Hamilton Standard propeller, the airplane incorporates a completely new wing and tail design by Statler Air.

The Wildfire Air Race Team is a group of talented professionals, experienced in the design, construction, modification, maintenance and operation of high performance aircraft. Headed by William H. Statler, former Director of Science and Engineering at Lockheed Aircraft Company in California and his two sons, William G. Statler, Lead Engineer, Lockheed Martin Aircraft (Skunk Works), Richard H. Statler, business and finance director, Paul Novacek, NASA-Langley Human Factors expert in cockpit technology, Tom Johnson, R2800 Engine Specialist, Greg Benson, Lockheed Missiles and Space Ground Support Specialist, Dennis Whitman, Cal-Tech Senior Systems Analyst for NASA JPL, and Greg Austin, FAA A&P. Dave Morss, a 24-year veteran Reno racer and 3 time Sport Champion, will pilot the plane.

For more information, or to discuss sponsorship opportunities, please contact William G. Statler at StatlerAir@AOL.com or visit our web site, www.WildfireAirRacing.com.

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