One hundred feet above the Mojave Desert, Lyle Shelton fought to control his famed F8F-2 Bearcat. “The Spirit of ’77,” as the racer was known at the time, was on a qualifying lap, rounding the 8.5-mile racecourse at close to 420 mph.
Mac McClain, flying the Rolls-Royce Griffon powered “Red Baron” RB-51, had already qualified ahead of the rest of the field for the 1976 California National Air Races at over 418 mph. But Lyle wanted the top spot.
An oil line not suitable for the modified 3,200 horsepower Wright 3350 radial roaring in front of Shelton had been installed in a thrash to get the Bearcat ready. Suddenly it ruptured and the big engine seized. Already a two-time national champion in air racing’s Unlimited class with thousands of hours as a U.S. Navy pilot flying AD-6 Skyraiders, A-4 Skyhawks, and T-38s on exchange with the U.S. Air Force, Shelton knew what to do. He hauled back on the stick and zoomed up off the course, trading airspeed for altitude. “’77’s a mayday!,” he said on the air race frequency.
Maydays and deadsticks in the one-of-a-kind racer weren’t new to Lyle. In 1970, his second year of racing the Bear, his 3350 developed a serious case of hiccups when too much nitromethane was added to the plane’s water injection/anti-detonation system, causing it to quit running for several two to three-second intervals then smoke badly. Shelton mayday and landed hot, blowing two tires. Speeding toward the end of the runway, he had to ground loop the airplane in the overrun to save himself and the racer.
Six years later it was happening again. He set up to land on Mojave Airport’s runway 12-30, descending steeply to make the runway and leaving his gear up to preserve airspeed being bled away by the enormous 13-foot, six-inch AeroProducts Skyraider propeller milling in front of him.
Thousands of air race fans watched as Lyle dropped down to the runway and flared sharply. The gear refused to come down and he pitched the nose up abruptly to try shake the mains loose, but it was too late. The Spirit of ’77 slid down the runway on a sheet of flame ignited by the oil all over its fuselage and the friction from two blades of the big prop gouging the runway.
“I had already said ‘Aw sh*t,’ and from that point on I just enjoyed the ride,” Lyle remembered in his slight Texas drawl. Never has there been a fiercer competitor or cooler race pilot under fire than Shelton.
Miraculously, the propeller had stopped in a natural “X” configuration and the tailwheel had extended. The racer rode on its prop, tailwheel and pocket gear doors and was only slightly damaged. It was out of action for the next three years. But it wasn’t the final chapter for air racing’s winningest Unlimited, just a pause in the story that began in 1962 … before “Rare Bear.”
A Bearcat? Not interested …
Lyle Shelton stood on the ramp at the “Stead Facility,” the brand-new home of the Reno National Championship Air Races, on a sunny September afternoon during the 1966 event chatting with the founder of Gulfstream Aerospace, Allen Paulson. The two aviation legends pondered the right combination of aircraft and powerplant to win consistently in air racing’s top category, the Unlimited class.
“Al says, ‘You know what I’d do Lyle? I think the airplane to win these races up here is a Bearcat with a 3350,” Lyle remembered in a 1982 interview with my father, air race historian John Tegler.
“He just tossed that out,” Lyle added. “And I said, ‘Gee Al, I’ve flown that 3350 a lot. I don’t think it’ll take the punishment.’ I had my doubts about the reliability of the engine and plus, the airplane looked a little fat to me by sight.”
Lyle’s initial skepticism about an airframe and engine combination that would take him to 10 overall wins at races from Florida to California and New Jersey; make him a six-time winner at Reno, propel him to the world 3,000-meter time-to-climb record with a time of 91.9 seconds; and push the world piston-engine, propeller-driven speed record to 528.329 mph is ironic.
But Shelton was intimate with the 3350, having flown Skyraiders equipped with the engine from aircraft carriers for hundreds of hours. He’d already competed in Unlimited races in 1965 and 1966, borrowing a P-51D known as “Tonapah Miss” and a Sea Fury called “Signal Truck Special” that he flew for another owner and raced to a second-place finish in the Consolation race at Reno the day before chatting with Paulson.
“At that time, I had my eyeballs peeled for a P-51, and I was going to put a Griffon engine in it. I’d heard about the Griffon. I thought that was the way to go.”
That combination—a Griffon-powered “RB-51”—became Lyle’s competition in 1975. But fate intervened 13 years earlier in northwest Indiana, setting the stage for the creation of the world’s fastest, most famous Bearcat.
The Valparaiso cartwheel
Richard Finnell had a job to do in August 1962. Ensconced in a tight cockpit behind an 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800, he was ferrying an F8F-2 registered as N1031B from Georgia to Beloit, Wisconsin on the 21st day of the month.
Accepted into Navy service in 1948, this Bearcat had flown on active duty with squadrons VF-91 and VF-34 between 1948 and 1950. By 1952, the airplane was a Naval Reserve bird, first in VF-742, then as part of the Naval Air Reserve Training Unit at Birmingham, Alabama. Between 1953 and 1956, it was stored at a variety of Navy bases and struck from the USN with 667 hours total in 1957.
Its whereabouts for the five-year period leading to 1962 aren’t clear. But Finnell was taking the Bear to a new owner, William O’Neil of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Porter County Airport in Valparaiso, Indiana was one of at least two stops for fuel Finnell had to make to get to Beloit on that August Tuesday. According to the northwest Indiana town’s “Valparaiso VidetteMessenger” newspaper, bystanders watching his approach to Porter County saw the aircraft stall “about five feet above the west end” of the airport’s east-west runway where it “dropped to the surface.”
Finnell was an experienced commercial pilot but didn’t have much time in warbirds, and it’s thought that this ferry was his first Bearcat flight. He reportedly told investigators the airplane had a hydraulic system failure. But Guy Campolattara, a Valparaiso native who was a child at the time of the accident, remembers pilots at Porter County speculating that Finnell had “forgotten to lock the tailwheel and lost control of the airplane.”
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