Air racing

T 6 Gold Start passing the finish pylon at the 2014 Reno Air Races

Air racing is a motorsport that involves airplanes competing over a fixed course, with the winner either returning the shortest time, the one to complete it with the most points, or to come closest to a previously estimated time.


The first heavier-than-air air race was held on May 23, 1909 - the Prix de Lagatinerie, at the Port-Aviation airport south of Paris, France. Four pilots entered the race, two started and nobody completed the full race distance though this was not unexpected as the rules specified that whoever travelled furthest would be the winner if no-one completed the race. Léon Delagrange who covered slightly more than half of the ten 1.2-kilometre laps was declared the winner.[1]

Some other minor events were held before the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne in August 22–29, 1909 at Reims, France. This was the first major international flying event, drawing the most important aircraft makers and pilots of the era, as well as celebrities and royalty. The premier event — the first Gordon Bennett Trophy competition — was won by Glenn Curtiss, who beat second-place finisher Louis Blériot by five seconds. Curtiss was named "Champion Air Racer of the World".

The first air race in the United States was held at Dominguez Field, just south of Los Angeles, from January 10 to 20, 1910, organized by pilots A. Roy Knabenshue and Charles Willard. Funding was raised from railroad magnate Henry Huntington and the Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturers Association. William Randolph Hearst carried coverage of the event in his Los Angeles Examiner, and hired a hot air balloon with a promotional parse touting his newspaper. The event attracted 43 entrants, of which 16 appeared. It was there that aviation pioneer and military pilot Jimmy Doolittle, then thirteen, saw his first airplane.[2]

In the years before the First World War popular interest in aviation led to a large number of air races in Europe, including the 1911 Circuit of Europe race, the Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Air Race and the Aerial Derby.

In 1913 the first Schneider Trophy seaplane race was held. When the competition was resumed after the war it was significant in advancing aeroplane design, particularly in the fields of aerodynamics and engine design, and would show its results in the best fighters of World War II.

On October 19, 1919, the Army Transcontinental Air Race began along a 2700-mile route from Long Island, New York to San Francisco, California and back which would see widespread carnage including 7 fatalities (2 en route to the race). Of the 48 aircraft that started, 33 would complete the double crossing of the continent.[3]

In 1921, the United States instituted the National Air Meets, which became the National Air Races in 1924. In 1929, the Women's Air Derby, nicknamed the "Powder Puff Derby", became a part of the National Air Races circuit. The National Air Races lasted until 1949. The Cleveland Air Races was another important event. In 1947, an All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race, also dubbed the "Powder Puff Derby" was established, running until 1977.

In 1934, the MacRobertson Air Race from England to Australia took place with the winning de Havilland Comet flown by C. W. A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black.

North American T-6 Texan race start 2014 Reno Air Races
Start formation Sport Class 2014 Reno Air Races

In 1964, Bill Stead, a Nevada rancher, pilot, and unlimited hydroplane racing champion, organized the first Reno Air Races at a small dirt strip called the Sky Ranch, located between Sparks, Nevada, and Pyramid Lake. The National Championship Air Races were soon moved to the Reno Stead Airport and have been held there every September since 1966. The five-day event attracts around 200,000 people, and includes racing around courses marked out by pylons for six classes of aircraft: Unlimited, Formula One, Sport Biplane, AT-6, Sport and Jet. It also features civil airshow acts, military flight demonstrations, and a large static aircraft display. Other promoters have run pylon racing events across the USA and Canada, including races in Las Vegas, NV in 1965, Lancaster, CA in 1965 and 1966, Mojave, California in 1970-71, and 1973–79; at Cape May, NJ in 1971, San Diego, CA in 1971, Miami, FL in 1973 and 1979, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1984; Hamilton Field, California, in 1988; at Dallas, TX in 1990, in Denver, CO in 1990 and 1992, in Kansas City in 1993, in Phoenix, Arizona in 1994 and 1995; and in Tunica, Mississippi in 2005. Numerous other venues across the United States, Canada, and Mexico have also hosted events featuring the smaller Formula One and Biplane classes.

In 1970, American Formula One racing was exported to Europe (Great Britain, and then to France), where almost as many races have been held as in the U.S.A. Also in 1970, the California 1000 Air Race started at the Mojave Airport with a 66 lap unlimited air race that featured a Douglas DC-7 with one aircraft completing the circuit.[4][5]

Air racing in England: the Red Bull Air Race heat held at Kemble airfield, Gloucestershire. The aircraft fly singly, and have to pass between pairs of pylons

Red Bull has created a series called the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in which competitors fly individually between pairs of pylons, while performing prescribed maneuvers. Usually held over water near large cities, the sport has attracted large crowds and renewed media interest in air racing.

Aero GP has multiple aircraft racing together pik around pylons, and is based in Europe where it has held an air race each year since 2005.

Powered paragliding or paramotor races have been organized with the first occurring on 4 September 2010 in an airfield in Montauban, Southern France. These are parasails powered by small two-stroke engines and allow a much smaller race where the audience can see the pilots as they carry out their maneuvers.[6]

Historical championships

Competition 1st Race Primary Description Course Field Sanctioning Body
Gordon Bennett Trophy 1909 Time trials Pilon, rally (1920) Open
Daily Mail aviation prizes 1910 Various events to encourage aviation Point to point & circuit Open Daily Mail
Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe 1912 Encourage aviation Cross-country circuit Open Aéro-Club de France
Schneider Trophy 1913 Encourage seaplane development Triangle Seaplanes FAI
Pulitzer & National Air Races 1920 Unlimited Pylon Open
King's Cup Race 1922 Handicapped race for light aircraft Cross-country (UK) British pilots King George V
Dole Derby 1927 California to Hawaii Point to point Open NAA
Challenge International de Tourisme 1929 Encourage light aircraft development Technical trials & rally Light aircraft FAI
Thompson Trophy 1929 Unlimited Pylon Open NAA
Women's Air Derby 1929 Unlimited Transcontinental (US) Female pilots
Bendix Trophy 1931 Unlimited Transcontinental (US) Open
MacRobertson Air Race 1934 Commemorate 1934 Melbourne Centennial Intercontinental (UK to Australia) Open RAC
Formula V Air Racing 1977 Provide affordable racing Circuit Formula aircraft Formula V Air Racing Association

Active air races

Race 1st Race Description
Aero GP2005Pylon races plus additional disciplines
Air Race Classic1977 All women's cross country race, with handicapped speed planes. Courses change every year with at min. 2100 NM routes, completed within 4 days. Previously known as the "Women's Air Derby".
Air Race 1 World Cup2014Pylon races, 8 aircraft together, first one across the line wins
British Air Racing Championship1952Handicapped air races run by Royal Aero Club Records Racing and Rally Association
European Air Racing Championship2000Handicapped air races run by Royal Aero Club Records Racing and Rally Association
Hayward Rally1965Air race in Western U.S. Courses vary every year.
Parabatix Sky Racers2010Paramotor precision air races, Pylon racing, interactive ground obstacles, one & two aircraft at a time
Red Bull Championships2003Pylon races, one plane at a time
Reno Air Races1964Only remaining Unlimited Class Pylon race. Also includes the famous class of Formula One air races.
Schneider Trophy1981Landplanes, revived commemoration of original races, run by Royal Aero Club Records Racing and Rally Association


Restricting aircraft to a specific type or design creates a competition that focuses on pilot skill. Air racing events such as the Reno air races, incorporate multiple classes or aircraft. These may be defined by the race organizer, or by a sanctioned group. Some air races are limited to a single class.[7] Classes used at the Reno races are as follows:

Class First Race Primary Description Course Sanctioned
T-6 Air Racing 1946 T-6/Harvard/SNJ with a P&W R-1340-AN-1 engine Pylon
Biplane Air Racing 1964 360 cubic inch engines, mostly Pitts Specials Pylon PRPA - Biplane Division
Formula One Air Racing 1970 200 cubic inch engines Pylon International Aeronautics Federation
Formula V Air Racing 1972 1600cc Volkswagen engines Pylon (Defunct)
Sport Class Racing 1998 Experimental piston powered aircraft. Pylon
Unlimited Air Racing 1964 Generally stock or modified WWII fighters i.e., P-51 Mustangs, F-8F Bearcats & Hawker Sea Furys Pylon NAG
Jet Air Racing 2002 L-39, L-29 Provost, Iskra, and DeHavilland Vampires Pylon Racing Jets, Inc.

Notable racing pilots

Racing airplanes

P-51D Mustang Dago Red

Cultural depictions


  1. The May–June 1909 "Port Aviation" Meetings – The World's First Air Races by Anders Bruun accessdate 22 August 2012
  2. Berliner, Don (January 2010). "The Big Race of 1910". Air & Space Magazine. The Smithsonian. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  3. Billy Mitchell and the Great Transcontinental Air Race of 1919 by Dr. William M. Leary, Air University Review, May–June 1984
  4. "Air Racing News". Sport Aviation. January 1970.
  5. California 1000 Unlimited Class Air Race video
  6. Parabatix Sky Racers
  7. Philip Handleman. Air Racing Today: Heavy Iron at Reno.


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