RENO - One of the nation's longest running air races opened Thursday with a couple of newcomers - a pair of Russian MiGs two United Airlines pilots bought at an auction in the former Soviet Union.
''We were looking for some high-performance jets that would do well on the air show circuit and none were available,'' said Randy Howell, 46, who flys 747s when he isn't thrilling crowds as the pilot of the lead Stoli MiG.
''We have a friend that has imported many foreign military jets from all around the world so when he said four were available, we picked them up,'' he said.
The two MiG-17s are performing daily through Sunday at the 37th annual National Air Championship Races at Reno-Stead Airport. They are among fewer than 15 in the United States, Howell said.
The combat fighter used by the North Vietnamese was one of Russia's chief warplanes during the Cold War. It burns 350 gallons of jet fuel in 30 minutes and can reach speeds up to 711 mph.
''We all wondered what was on the other side and what their capabilities were,'' said Howell of Byron, Calif., who has flown for United for 22 years.
''The U.S. military had acquired some information over the years from defectors but the general public had never been able to see them fly,'' he said. ''They have a good power-to-weight ratio and they're a very tight turning airplane.''
Some secrets remain.
''They came from an Eastern bloc country but we were asked by the country not to state where exactly there were based, that kind of thing,'' Howell said about the purchase three years ago.
''They asked the price not to be stated. I really don't know why,'' he said.
The U.S. Navy's Blue Angels are the other big headliner at the Reno air races, which feature live competition in a variety of classes, including sport biplanes, Formula One and Unlimiteds. The latter top out at 480 mph or faster.
As many as 170,000 fans are expected to attend over the four days of racing and exhibition of vintage aircraft.
This year's theme, ''Racing with Legends,'' celebrates the 80th anniversary of the first cross-country airmail service.
The aerial acrobatics of the Blue Angels' F/A-18 Hornet jets are always a crowd pleaser.
''We actually get about 18 inches away from each other on several maneuvers,'' Blue Angel pilot Scott Kartvedt told KOLO-TV before Thursday's performance.
''At one point, we are about a Coke can apart,'' he said.
Each crew member has at least 1,500 hours of flight time and the moves are ''very well choreographed,'' Kartvedt said.
''We've landed on ships at night, which is pretty darn exciting too,'' he said.
Howell, who earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Florida, and his partner Jerry Gallud flew the Stoli MiGs the 150 miles from Byron to Reno on Wednesday - about a 20-minute flight.
Their four MiGs - one is used for parts - last were flown in combat by the Soviet Air Force in 1990, Howell said. They were built in 1957.
Gallud said the sponsorship with Stoli Russian Vodka was a natural.
''It's a perfect match,'' he said. ''We're flying the authentic Russian MiGs sponsored by the only authentic Russian vodka, the spirit of Russia.''
Howell acknowledged commercial airline veterans don't necessarily match the stereotype of a wild and crazy stunt pilot.
''But we have all different types of people flying for the airline. We've got guys who are doctors and lawyers and engineers on the side as well as air show pilots.''