There’s an air of military behind Thom’s disarming smile. Perhaps it’s the precision with which he goes about his business, or the clean-cut appearance and vice-like hand shake upon introduction. Either way, being surrounded by his extraordinary collection of historic aircraft at Warbird Adventures certainly adds to the sense of combat.
It’s mid-afternoon. The Texan sun has already made light work of my initially dry shirt and, having just experienced my first-ever flying lesson with, err, added aerobatics and a mid-air stall, the trouser department was up against it, too.
I’ve just had the pleasure of flying with Thom Richard. His calm assuredness only accentuated the fact that I’ve never flown an aircraft before, but not once did this Reno Ace raise his voice, even during my aforementioned stall. In fact, I’m sure a smirk was had as we momentarily fell from the sky, such is the confidence and vast experience of the man.
With well over 10,000 hours spent above the hard deck, Thom’s obsession with all things airborne began as a seven-year old who happened upon a flying magazine with pictures of the Reno air races. As Thom puts it: ‘It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. We heard about air racing in the WWII era but I had no idea that it existed, it really blew my mind. That’s when I decided; that’s what I want to do.’
At 16 he was already piloting gliders in his native Sweden, but his first experience of powered flight came a year later when he arrived in the US where he learned to fly in various ‘taildraggers’ (not to be confused with a dog relieving an awkward itch). This is a type of aircraft with a small wheel strategically placed under the tail rather than the nose – a minor detail, but an entirely different beast when negotiating taxiing, take-off and that fairly critical part, landing. With nose pitched skywards in all but standard flight, forward visibility is best described as sweet FA. I can attest to this having been tasked with taxiing one of his classic T-6 Texans in zig-zag formation on the airfield: it really is the way forward.
Favouring everything but horizontal flight and sensible instrument readings, Thom learned aerobatics way before focusing on the acquisition of a pilot licence proper. Obviously. Having earned all his ratings, including a mechanic licence and Inspection Authorisation, so began the ‘barnstorming’. Or so they thought. Barnstorming, for the uninitiated, refers to the practise of travelling the country selling airplane rides to thrill seekers. Speaking from experience, it makes a mockery of that little white paper bag found in your standard airliner.
Warbird Adventures is the main vehicle with which Mr Richard fuels his real obsession, air racing. ‘Because if you had to pay for a facility to do what we want to do with the race planes, the budget would be even worse. It’s cubic dollars.’
Reno Championship Air Races, billed as the world’s fastest motor-sport, began in 1964, presumably for those who preferred flying high on gasoline rather than the available alternatives at the time.
The Unlimited class, in which Thom now races, mainly consists of modified or stock WWII fighters, which regularly exceed speeds of 400 mph. Thom’s stunning North American P-51 XR Mustang, Precious Metal, very much fits the former. Now heavily modified from its original design – not least its magnificent Rolls-Royce power plant, of which my ears had the great pleasure of hearing the first run since a complete conversion from carburettor to electronic fuel injection – this unique modification is the first of its kind in the world to be performed on this engine.
A casual hobby this is not. Countless, round-the-clock hours consumed, each and every modification a pure labour of love and at times the ultimate, failed frustration. In air racing, the drawing board knows no respite in the seemingly incessant quest for speed.
Charley – Warbird Adventures, how did it come about?
Thom – On a cocktail napkin. I was with a business partner of mine. We weren’t planning on staying in Florida, we ended up in Kissimmee by fluke. Originally there was an air museum here called the Flying Tigers. We ended up flying there quite a bit and stayed put with them for the summer of 1998. We got busier, the museum was thriving. Then Hurricane Charlie hit and demolished the front third of the hangar. That’s when we decided, well, let’s build our own. We built this in ‘07.
C – So anyone can have a go at flying?
We cater to those who already fly, but also to people with no experience whatsoever. We can put them behind the controls and let them do it, it’s an experience you can’t really get anywhere else. Then there’s the historical aspect, flying something this cool. We feel it’s our responsibility to keep WWII history alive. We owe those guys a huge favour, right?
C – Do you have a particular favourite in your collection?
There’s nothing like a T-6. I have some other favourites in the industry that I fly for other people such as the P-40, but the T-6 is my absolute favourite aircraft to fly.
C – Tell us a bit about your early career in air racing.
At Reno in 2009, I was sponsored to fly a Formula 1 airplane, a gold racer. I already had a silver racer so I entered with two airplanes. It was close, but I managed to win both races. Apparently it had never been done, no one had ever won both the gold and silver in the same year.
So all of a sudden I went from nothing to being on top of the game. The only thing you can do at that point is retire, because you can never be any better than that. Instead, I went off to race jets for a while.
C – Precious Metal, how did that come about?
I was talking to a friend of mine about my dreams and future plans and I told him about a Mustang that was sitting in South Florida that I’d wanted to get my hands on. He decided we should to go have a look at it. I didn’t think I could afford it. It had been sitting in storage for four years, cobwebs, flat tyres, corrosion. But he came up with the money and in September 2011, three of us went in there and came out with Precious Metal.
C – Your arrival at Reno last year was epic to say the least. What happened?
We’d done all the mods to Precious Metal and by then it was a really slick airplane, but we also had to build a race motor. Because of delivery of the parts, it came together incredibly late. We cranked the engine up on the Tuesday before the races and the absolute cut off to make it to Reno was on the Sunday, 5pm. Otherwise you don’t get to fly.
The engine ran for seven minutes then it seized up. Just like that. And we’d been up 24/7 for three weeks putting this thing together. We were shattered, it was total heartbreak.
We took the engine apart but it was only when we got down to the bottom end that we realised it was completely useless – and that was our race motor, the one we’d spent all our time and money on. We were standing there with all these parts laying on the floor, and we brought out all the spares that we had. And we came to realise that we might just have enough parts to make an engine that could run, that may just be safe enough to fly.
We started building it on the Thursday. It was the most amazing effort of aviation engineering I’ve ever seen in my life. Full time, there were six of us, at times there were ten. We were so tired, we’d been going on this cycle of not sleeping for days. I think I got two or three hours the night before the test flight.
The next morning, everything looked good, then this fog bank drifted in over the airport. And fog just doesn’t happen in Florida, especially that time of year. It wasn’t clear until three in the afternoon, we were just sat there all day twiddling our thumbs.
When we finally did the test flight, we nearly wrecked it because of a charging problem. But we fixed it and I set off on a 25-hundred-mile, cross-country flight on the Saturday morning. First I flew to Dallas, where I had an oil leak so I spent all night working on it. Then I headed west, my goal was to make it to Phoenix. But I had to divert. This was on Sunday morning.
I landed at Douglas, New Mexico. Nobody there, just dust on the floor. I finally found a self-serve fuel pump. With the ancient LCD displays, every other letter was blank. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to get two helpings at 26 gallons apiece. Just enough to make it to my destination. Not only was the clock ticking but there was this massive thunderstorm coming in from Mexico, it had reached the edge of the runway. I was being chased by the squaw line and I literally couldn’t see the airport behind me. It was that close.
At this point, Yosemite National Park was on fire and you couldn’t see anything. The leg was 2.1 hours long and I had 2.2 hours in reserve. I made the decision to go through the thunderheads. I was tossed around like a pinball. Eventually I broke out and I was on a downhill slide to Reno. I realised, ‘I’m actually going to make it. I’m gonna be there on time’. I’m not really an emotional guy, but that was exciting.
I taxied in all scruffy. I mean, I was just dead. I didn’t have enough energy to even get out of the cockpit. And I started to hear this sound. We were getting a standing ovation from the crowd. Everyone had been on pins and needles wondering if we were going to make it. It was an incredible welcome.
C – How had the Reno crowds known what had been happening?
One thing I’d noticed on the trip up was I’d gotten a lot of help from Air Traffic Control (ATC). When my number came up on the screen they just cleared everything out of the way, asked how it was going, knew I was coming. It turned out one of our Facebook fans was really high up in the ATC and the Federal Aviation Authority and he’d been telling the controlling tower to give me priority because he wanted me at the races. I didn’t even know the guy, it was amazing.
C – And how did you get on?
We still ended up taking fifth in the gold. So we’re the fifth-fastest airplane in the world today, on a motor that wasn’t even mediocre. We’ve spent all year trying to better our race engine and make it happen for real this time. We’re just getting there now.
C – So I gather Precious Metal’s engine has been converted to EFI?
Correct. It’s something that a manufacturer would undertake for years. It’s a big, big deal. And I can’t even tell you how much it costs to do it. But we really believe in the concept, we think it’s going to work.
In fact, this one here is our test motor, this isn’t a fully fledged race motor. The race motor’s still in England having bearings made and it should be shipped here in 10 days. We’ve got to take the test engine out and swap it. We know we can do it pretty quick because we’ve done it before, but we may run out of time which means we’ll have to run this one. Either way, we’re going to be at Reno.
C – If the race motor isn’t ready in time, do you still think you can win Reno?
Well, I don’t know if I can win Reno, but this test motor is by far the strongest motor that we’ve ever built and flown with. But the race motor, well, that’s going to be even more ridiculous.
C – And after Reno?
The goal is to win Reno – that’s been my life’s ambition, since I was seven. But I also want to break the world speed record with Precious Metal. And that’s a completely different deal. It’s been standing now since 1989, I mean it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish.
You know, some people say it’s a disease to go air racing and I say, well, that’s not possible because that makes it sound as though there’s a cure. And I know there isn’t one.
This interview took place in August 2014, just before the Reno air races.
Thom and his team ended up taking third in the gold after working their way up from the bottom as an engine failure precluded them from qualifying in time. ‘We started in the bottom of the pack. Won the Bronze, won the silver and started working our way up in the Gold, only to be DQ’d for a nonexistent show line cut in the end. My onboard video proves I stayed on the course. But it’s not contestable, so we defaulted to 8th place. So, many ups and downs last week.’
For more information or to book a flight visit www.warbirdadventures.com.
Charley Speed studied drama and managed to blag his way into several films and most recently appeared alongside Elle McPherson as a judge on Britain’s Next Top model. A respected and popular presenter, well dressed, well-travelled and well fit, Charley’s main side passion in life is motor vehicles. Any of them. Follow him on Twitter at @CharleySpeed.