The Scaled Composites Pond Racer was a competitive aircraft conceived in the late 1980s which aimed to replace the wartime fighters that had traditionally taken part in the Reno Air Race. A collaborative effort between an ex-Navy business magnate, a legendary test pilot, and a manufacturer renowned for cutting-edge designs, on paper the Pond Racer seemed destined to succeed.
On the other hand, persistent engine problems would haunt the developmental phase, ultimately leading to the spectacular crash that ended the entire project.
In 1964 the American National Championship Air Races, a high-octane fly-off, was restarted after a long hiatus. At the time the Second World War was only a recent memory, and so there existed a surplus of high-performance wartime craft that were repurposed to competitively fly.
As a result, in the first iteration of the Reno Air Race, it would be Mustangs, Bearcats, Sea Furies and other classic fighters made up the majority of contestants.
However, in the late 1980s Robert Pond, an aviation enthusiast, Minnesota museum owner, and entrepreneur, identified a trend he believed would threaten the very existence of classic wartime fighters.
At the annual Reno Air Race, Pond calculated that up to 10 sets of P-51 parts were being consumed annually by the participants, while a further 5 sets were being destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Even more worryingly at this current rate, he predicted that in 20 years there would be no more fully assembled examples of the P-51.
With this in mind in 1988 at Oshkosh Pond he ran into Dick Rutan, a seasoned US Army pilot most famous for achieving the first non-stop flight around the world without refuelling in the Voyager.
Here Pond mentioned that like the specialized cars of a rally, there should be planes specifically built for racing. He argued that by using semi-disposable racer craft, vintage planes could avoid being wastefully destroyed and preserved for future generations instead.
Convinced Pond’s idea was a good one, Rutan contacted his brother Burt, a manufacturer who ran Scaled Composites based in Mojave, California, about building a new racer prototype.
Burt Rutan was a world-renowned engineer most famous for making canards part of the conventional layout of an aeroplane. As such, his penchant for experimentation and boundary-pushing design made him the perfect engineer to head such a project.
Following some initial research by Dick it was decided that the powerplant for the Scaled Composites racer would be developed by a subsidiary of Nissan, Electramotive, a motorsport manufacturer with engine expertise based in Vista, California.
In order for the craft to shine at the Reno Air Race, the engine they provided would need over 2,000 horsepower, which would also be about enough for the Pond Racer to break the competitive world speed record of 528 miles per hour set in 1989 by Lyle Shelton in a modified Grumman Bearcat called the Rare Bear.
With speed being prioritized from the outset, the designers debated three distinctive engine layouts. The first consideration was a push-pull layout, but this was soon ruled out by Rutan who felt that pusher powerplants could not produce the necessary prop efficiency.
Next, the team toyed with the idea of an asymmetric arrangement in which the pilot was seated at one of two booms, but this was discounted since Rutan did not want the pilot anywhere near potential hazards such as fuel, oil, and hot coolant.
In the end, a pod and boom arrangement in the style of the P-38, in which the engines pulled on the wings, was chosen with one important modification; the pilot was to be situated between the slender tail ends of the boom instead of between the two engines.
Although this meant the pilot’s visibility in front and to the sides would be obstructed by the nacelles, the advantages of this layout outweighed the disadvantages.
For one, the weight of the pilot’s pod would be low, since it would be supported at both ends, and the interference drags between the wing and the cockpit would also be almost non-existent as a result. Most importantly, though, the pilot would be far away from the potential hazards of the engines and the pod and boom would also balance out the heavyweight hanging off the front of the wings.
Furthermore, it was believed that the arrangement would ensure the Pond Racer had enough directional stiffness to safely navigate its way out of any airborne emergency.
Possessing an empty weight of 3,500 pounds and a gross weight of 4,140 pounds, the Scaled Composites Pond Racer was 20 feet long, had a wingspan of 25 feet, and its structure was composed mainly of graphite composites.
It was propelled by dual liquid-cooled Electramotive VG30 engines that were derived from Nissan V-6 block engines used in the 300ZX and Maxima automobiles. Fully installed with turbochargers, radiators, and ducts, the V-6’s basic weight increased from 350 pounds to 700 pounds.
Mounted to the airframe, this hefty engine was tightly packed in the nacelles, which were 2 feet in diameter and 5 feet in length. The cowling skins also acted as the load-bearing part of the engine mount, making the gap between the spinner and cowling little more than a knife slit.
The engines themselves were electronically operated by microcontroller chips, which received performance, temperature, and pressure data to move the plane accordingly.
Additional information about the airframe and powerplant, which was gathered every two seconds, was displayed on a computer screen in the cockpit, allowing technicians to make adjustments for optimum engine calibration.
The V-6 was also connected to a gearbox which brought the Racer’s wild 8,000 rpm operating speed down to a more propellor-friendly 2,000 rpm. In this respect, the Pond Racer featured four-bladed King Air props that were 80 inches in diameter, and whose knife-thin tips were designed to run at 98% of the speed of sound.
On March 22nd 1991 Dick Rutan took the Scaled Composites Pond Racer out for its first spin in the sky. Commenting afterwards, Rutan noted how the maiden voyage had been a ‘continuous engine emergency’ due to improperly calibrated powerplants.
Over the next couple of trials, the engines were adjusted and recalibrated to work well at moderate power, but even by August, they were still chronically misfiring because the engine control computers were failing to take account of air density.
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Another source of trouble was the methanol fuel, which was found to be corroding the plane’s materials and contaminating the oil supply. Consequently, it became standard procedure to drain the fuel systems after each flight and refill them with aviation gasoline in order to safeguard the components from the effects of methanol.
Despite these teething difficulties, the Scaled Composites Pond Racer publicly debuted at the 1991 Reno Air Race. Piloted by legendary racing aviator Rick Brickert, the Pond Racer’s high wing loadings meant the craft was able to exhibit good handling characteristics. In fact, the racer was so impressive it qualified for the 400 miles per hour Silver Race.
On the other hand, in a follow-up flight, the connecting rod of the left engine malfunctioned and the Pond Racer was enveloped in flame. Although Brickert was able to make a safe landing, Robert Pond’s brainchild would no longer be able to continue the competition.
Looking to make things right, the next year the Pond Racer returned to Reno where it finished second place in the 365 miles per hour Gold Race, however, an engine failure in a pre-race flight would disqualify it from taking part in any further races.
Now thoughts turned to the 1993 edition of the Reno Air Race, during which an unexpected tragedy would send shockwaves throughout the aviation world.
1993 Reno Air Crash
At the 1993 Reno Air Race with Rick Brickert at the controls, Bob Pond once again entered his Scaled Composites Pond Racer into the pre-race time trials. As Brickert was doing some practice laps he reported a minor problem with the right engine.
Flying away from the race area, Brickert activated the landing gear and was preparing to touchdown when the right engine broke down, leaving the propellor unfeathered.
As Brickert careened out of control, he decided the best course of action was to retract the landing gear and land the plane belly down on a nearby dry lake bed. However on approach, Brickert overshot the lake bed and the Pond Racer tumbled into rougher terrain beyond, skidding several hundred yards before bursting into flame.
Since Brickert was immediately killed and did not radio in the moments leading up to his death, it is still a mystery why he chose to belly the plane rather than return to the airport using his functioning left engine.
Unfortunately though, with the only working model of the Scaled Composites Pond Racer now destroyed, Bob Pond’s dream to supply the world with a new generation of racer planes was also wrecked.