"While the Northern Hemisphere braced for winter weather, the folks Down Under were busy celebrating their Bicentennial Year and the promise of Summer. Among the many and varied events which commemorated Australia's Bicentennial Year was an Air Race unlike any other ever run in Australia. It's fitting that an air race should have been part of Australia's celebrations as aviation has played such an important part in Australia's pioneering growth. The vast distances and remoteness which are such a part of Australia make aviation a vital part of life in the land Down Under.
Without the airplane, the prosperity and well being of Australia would not be what it is today. The "Aviation Event of the Decade", as one newspaper called it, was actually known as the GE Bicentennial Around Australia Air Race. Sponsored by General Electric (USA), the race lived up to its name as it covered more than 6100 nautical miles and virtually circled Australia. More than an air race, it was a "Bicentennial Event" which brought the celebrations to remote places and people in the vast Outback of Australia, as well as to its capital cities. 105 competitors took the starters flag in Narromine, New South Wales for the first race leg to Toowoomba, Queensland. The lineup was quite a spectacle as military and civilian single and multi-engine aircraft taxied into line to await their flag-off. Among the competitors were some noteworthy vintage aircraft and four homebuilts; a Thorp T-18, two Long-EZs, and a VariEze.
The highest finishing of these was Long-EZ '84', built and piloted by Queensland businessman Magna Liset. His copilot and navigator was Wayne P. Johnson, a US Army Captain and Flight Instructor on exchange to to the Australian Army Aviation Centre in Magna's hometown of Oakey, Queensland. Long-EZ 84 crossed the finish line at Rockhampton to capture ninth place at the end of the first day's racing. It was an indication of the aircraft's true potential. 84's aircrew had decided to restrict maximum rated power to climb only, thereafter throttling back to 75% power to conserve the engine and ascertain if the aircraft would be competitive. It became very clear from the outset that this would be a long race, one in which the fleet of wing might not necessarily be the victor. Speed and endurance were to be critical elements of any winning combination.
Second day's race leg was somewhat shorter, run from the coastal plains of Rockhampton to the dry inland cattle ranching area of Longreach, home of the "Stockman's Hall of Fame". Over this leg, Long-EZ 84 managed a higher average speed than in the previous leg and secured fourth place for the effort. This was partially due to guessing the winds aloft better than some of the competitors, and to the use of a ram-air plenum which had been fitted to the aircraft prior to the race. The newly fitted ram air system was good for an additional 50-125 RPM in cruise flight. The resultant difference in true airspeed can easily be appreciated. The departure from Longreach early on the morning of the third day wasn't without some drama.
A crack was discovered in the prop spinner during last minute preparations and a decision was made to stop-drill it until more permanent repairs could be made. These were planned for the end of the day at Alice Springs, where we hoped time and resources would allow such an effort. Unfortunately the vibration generated by running the engine at continuous high RPM made the crack worse, as was evidenced by its singing in the navigator's ear during cruise flight. As it turned out, there was an unexpected delay during the intermediate stop at Mount Isa. The copilot-navigator donned his A&P hat and raced off to find an FBO equipped to make airframe repairs. Spinner repaired and polished, Long-EZ 84 sat in the 380 C mid-day sun awaiting its starting time.
Long-EZ 84 crossed the finish line at Alice Springs late in the afternoon with what its crew felt would be a good performance. The aircraft had flown predominantly low-level over the longest the most remote race leg of the entire event, using thermals enroute to enhance true airspeed. This was possible because the winds aloft were forecast as either headwinds or crosswinds. Given the aircraft's rather sluggish climb performance, but excellent cruise and turbulence penetration, it was decided to gamble on a low level leg with an accent on precise great circle navigation. The ride for the "guy in back" wasn't conducive to the stubby pencil routine or computing, but the pilot accurately flew the directed headings and courses and '84' maintained its great circle route within one-quarter mile throughout the entire leg.
The Race Director's announcement that M. Liset in Long-EZ 84 had won the Longreach to Alice Springs leg was its crew's first indication that they were truly in the running. It had been a good day! 'Me first of several. Analysis of aircraft climb and cruise performance during the first three days convinced both navigator and pilot that the contest would effectively be over once the high performance twins, especially the Royal Australian Air Force's entries, reached conditions favoring higher altitude cruise performance. The winds aloft during the timeframe of the air race were predominantly westerlies and northwesterlies. Obviously, an aircraft with good low-level performance, accurately flown along its shortest route, would fair much better than a high performance aircraft better suited to upper level cruising.
Long-EZ 84 made the most of its 'tactical advantage', winning the fourth leg from Alice Springs to Darwin, as well as the fifth and sixth legs from Darwin to Broome and Broome and Canarvon. This run of success put the little homebuilt into second place as the fleet reached Perth, only 20.42 points behind the Ted Smith Aerostar 601P of Ted Rear. By the time the race reached Perth, it was a National event with considerable attention from the news media. While Perth Businessman Ted Rear enjoyed the attention of his hometown press, Magna Liset and the 'Unusual tail-first homemade airplane from Queensland", weren't short of curious onlookers, well wishers, and radio and TV commentators.
In fact, by the time it reached Perth, anyone remotely interested in the air race knew about the little plastic airplane built by some fella from Queensland. What's more, they wanted to see and touch it for themselves. All of this instant notoriety, although flattering, was a little troublesome at times. Everyone wanted to leave fingerprints all over the canopy. The navigator spent most of his time rescuing Magna from the upteen thousandth redundant question or (re)polishing the canopy. About two hours of this and your fun meter was just about pegged out! As predicted, once the race turned eastward and tailwinds became the order of the day, the big boys got on with it and left the less well endowed struggling to catch up.
Long-EZ was now hard pressed to hold its own and, in fact, lost ground slowly. It was very disappointing to watch the ground speed figures, knowing that the big guns were doing much better at higher altitudes, and had been doing so longer. Add the fact that as the day wore on, the winds aloft typically lost intensity. All of which meant that the early birds definitely got the best worms. It turns out that Long-EZ 84's left magneto developed a 'leak' while crossing the Nullabor Plains. The crew thought that the hard fullpower running at low altitudes prior to Perth had taken a toll on the rings and valves, which accounted for the noticeable, but then unexplained loss of revs. The magneto problem was only confirmed after the race.. When all was said and done, Long-EZ 84 wound up capturing the 3rd place prize, good for $4,000.00. Or as Magna put it, "This air race stuff is okay!"
You may be wondering how the race was run. Funny you should ask. The navigator asked the pilot the same question, and spent the first two days figuring out the answer. Simply put, it was a handicap race based upon manufacturers' design specifications and 75% cruise performance. The resultant calculations yielded each competitor's handicap True Air Speed (TAS). Each day the Race Director would announce the handicap winds aloft figures used by the timing and scoring section; generally a question of worst or best case from actual area forecasts. It was then up to the individual competitor to achieve the best ground speed (shortest time interval) given their handicap TAS corrected for the handicap winds aloft forecast. To keep the race within the reach of all competitors, altitude was limited to 10,000 ft AMSL. Competitors seemed to honor this restriction, although there were unconfirmed reports of some of the high flyers and fast movers sneaking above the mark to 'have a look' Long-EZ 84 represented the breed very well.\, It's average TAS was 161.64 Kts.
The highest recorded TAS was 170.39 Kts. The highest recorded groundspeed was 251.76 Kts, achieved while crossing the Nullabor at 10,000 ft AMSL between Forrest and Ceduna. Bear in mind that the aircraft consistently took off with the highest all up weight of the two Long-EZs in the race. Fuel capacity was never a problem; however, the very long distances of some of the legs, combined with rather stringent VFR fuel reserve requirements in Australia, made for a heavy aircraft on occasion. This was particularly evident in climb performance, especially since the aircraft was fitted with a Great American Propeller Company cruise prop.
On one of the legs, an unexplained loss of TAS and groundspeed became evident as the flight progressed. Engine instruments said everything was operating at full potential but the navigator's computer said .04 Kts slower than anticipated. The culprit turned out to be a thin coating of salt brine on the aircraft's surfaces which effectively gave it a fine sandpaper finish. Washed and rewaxed, the elusive knot found its way back to the airspeed indicator. Smiles all 'round! The Lycoming 0-235 engine was run at 2,900 RPM during cruise flight with ram air applied. Descents were made at Vne with the actual descent point/gradient dependent upon the known and forecast winds aloft. Let's just say that Long-EZ 84 made an impressive finish at the end of each leg, as witnessed by many spectators on the ground. From the back seat, it sounded quite spectacular to hear the engine at full chat on the downhill slide.
The old prop really sings! In essence, the GE Bicentennial Around Australia Air Race was just that - a race. Those competitors who were serious about racing and winning had to push themselves and their aircraft. In the final analysis, it was the optimized integration of man and machine which spelled the difference between success and "also ran". Anyone who came thinking they could 'cruise' around Australia and do well just didn't understand the problem. Long-EZ 84's success was the culmination of much hard work by a man who spent five years of his life building a dream. The aircraft is one of the finest aerodynamic examples you'll find anywhere. The pilot flew the aircraft to its potential, and the navigator kept it on track along carefully plotted great circle routes. One of the critical keys to success was the aircrew's use of very accurate 1:250,000 JOG-AIR maps.
Although this meant considerable map preparation prior to each leg, and 131 map sheets at the start of the race, the navigational accuracy and appreciation of winds aloft and groundspeed made the result well worth the effort. There were times when the navigator was planning until 2:20 AM and getting two hours sleep prior to wake-up call. Likewise, the pilot spent his rest days checking, double checking and cleaning the aircraft for the next day's competition. The reward was to get within 20.42 points of leading the air race overall, and earning third prize in the end.
History will record that an aircraft designed by an American named Burt Rutan, built and piloted by Magna Liset and navigated by a United States Army Exchange Officer came within a stone's throw of leading the most prestigious air race in Australia's history. It came home third and made a lot of people very proud. It generated a lot of interest and excitement and put the homebuilt crowd in the spotlight.
And it surprised a lot of people with their very expensive single and multiengined aircraft. In most forms of human endeavor, there is some element of that stuff called luck. One competitor was overheard in Perth as he observed how "lucky that Liset chap is." A friend of Magna's caught the comment and added, "Yeah mate, and the harder he works, the luckier he gets." It's refreshing to hear people who appreciate that building an aircraft is no small task. Doing it well deserves respect, if not admiration. It was one helluva air race. You should've been there!"
by Wayne P. Johnson