RENO - Speed demons take to the Northern Nevada skies this week as they compete for a record $1.1 million purse at the 41st Reno National Championship Air Races.
More than 120 pilots and planes ranging from World War II fighters to modern jets will be competing at Reno Stead Airport.
"I've always wanted to go to the Reno Air Races," said Joe Kittinger, a retired Air Force pilot and one of seven grand marshals for this year's event.
Jon Sharp of Mohave, Calif., who has won 11 titles at Reno dating to 1982, had hoped to begin a new era of success with his new Nemesis NXT sports plane when official competition begins Thursday. But his aircraft suffered damage to the landing gear when it skidded along the runway during a practice round on Tuesday and won't be able to make the race.
Sharp had claimed victories each year from 1991 to 1999 with Nemesis - the NXT's predecessor, which was retired into the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in July 2000.
Qualifying and heat races began Wednesday, with racing continuing through Sunday.
Kittinger, 75, of Orlando, Fla., flew combat missions in Vietnam and spent 11 months in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war. He said he's looking forward to a first-of-its-kind race between L-39 Albatros jets capable of flying more than 400 mph.
The jets, manufactured in the Czech Republic, are an official competition category after flying as an exhibition class the past two years.
Kittinger, like the other grand marshals, helped make aviation history.
As a young Air Force officer in 1959 and 1960, Kittinger made a series of free-fall jumps from hot air balloons at high altitudes in research for what would become the United Sates space program.
"This was the first attempt to put a man into space using a pressure suit for protection and getting a man down from a very high altitude," said Kittinger, who jumped once from 102,800 feet. "The system we developed is still being used today."
He reached a speed of 714 mph during a free fall that lasted more than four minutes.
"I was supersonic without an airplane," Kittinger said.
Other grand marshals include former astronauts Dick Gordon, who walked in space on his first mission, and Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon.