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After thirty-four years in development, Wildfire is set to debut at the 2011 Reno Air Races.
The concept of Wildfire originated in the middle to late 1970s. A small group of people who had been involved in the various classes of air racing over the years felt it was time to do something really original in the Unlimited Air Racing Class.
At the time, the group was involved in racing a stock P-51 Mustang called “Candyman,” but the stock airplane was not competitive. Two options were open for consideration. Either the P-51 could be modified to make it competitive, or an entirely new approach could be undertaken.
The changes required to make the Candyman Mustang competitive were formidable. The wing, airframe and engine would have to be highly modified to increase the power and reduce the drag.
Two other important factors influenced the decision. First, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine seemed to have reached its structural limit in air racing. The Merlins were also becoming excessively expensive, because sources of supply for engines and parts were limited. Secondly, the stock two-place P-51 had a high resale value without modification. The decision was therefore made to sell Candyman and to start from scratch with a new airplane.
The design philosophy for the new airplane was based on experience and on the availability of modern aerodynamic technology. It was felt that future pylon races would not be won on power alone, but on a combination of power, low drag and light weight. These factors could all be provided in a new design.
The engine chosen for the new airplane was the Pratt & Whitney R2800-97W, because it is rugged, reliable and available. The new airplane would have a completely new wing and tail. However, since the fuselage diameter would be dictated by the engine diameter, it was decided that it would be expedient to use a T-6 fuselage tubular structure frame and aft semi-monocoque shell, both highly modified structurally for the basic fuselage.
With the design philosophy established, preliminary airplane design layouts were prepared and construction began in the spring of 1975. A T-6, without engine, outer wing panels, tail and canopy was purchased in February 1975 and was completely disassembled. Simultaneously, using all volunteer labor, the fuselage tubular frame was substantially modified at Van Nuys Airport. The aft fuselage was re-skinned and reinforced in one garage, the new tail assembly was underway in another garage, and the landing gear struts were completely overhauled.
When these parts were completed, they were mated in a rented building at Van Nuys Airport. The new wing center section was constructed and mated to the fuselage and a substantial part of the airplane structure was on its wheels. Work then proceeded with the construction of the engine mount, wing outer panels, removable fuselage panels, aircraft systems and instruments. During the entire construction period, two members of the crew worked two days and two nights each week, and the other four or five crew members worked two nights each week due to other employment.
The R-2800 engine was obtained by purchasing a Convair T-29 from an Air Force surplus auction in Arizona. Only the engines and propeller blades were eventually retained for use, and the remainder of the T-29 was resold. The two engines were used to make one complete rebuilt R-2800.
The airplane was rolled-out at Van Nuys in April of 1982. Later in that same year, the airplane was moved to a new hangar at the Mojave Airport on the high desert in Southern California, where it is currently based. After final assembly and testing, Wildfire completed a series of engine run-ups and high-speed taxi tests. The first flight occurred on October 20, 1983.
Shortly after the first flight, financial problems grounded the project. Late in 1999, Statler Air, a Limited Liability Company, was formed for the purpose of finishing the race plane project for the 2004 race season. The principles of Statler Air include William H. Statler, Manager of Design Engineering; William G. Statler, Manager of Production and Modifications; and Richard H. Statler, Business and Financial Manager.
With the passing of the Design Engineer in 2005, the crew, to a man, voted to continue the project to its completion in the name of William H. Statler and get the racer to Reno. That is still the teams goal.
Wildfire design concept
Frame on center section and gear
Before first coat of paint
Fuselage left side
Towed through the desert to Mojave
On the ramp
In good company