Effingham pilot races airplanes in Nevada, Thailand

For nearly 30 years, Swaid Rahn has fixed and flown airplanes of all types while based at a grass airstrip north of Springfield.


He’s flown 80 different types of planes and logged 4,500 flight hours.

Recently he added Formula 1 air racing to his accomplishments, racing in Reno, Nevada, the last two years. Later this month, he will travel to Thailand to compete in the Air Race 1 World Cup.

His Cassutt IIIM airplane, a single-seat, fixed-gear tail dragger named “Heat Stroke,” was sent weeks ago in a container on a ship to Thailand.

He’ll bolt the wings back on the plane and he and 17 other pilots will fly around pylons at Thailand’s U-Tapao Naval Airbase, just south of Bangkok, Nov. 17-19.

Eight airplanes will have to stay between 50 and 250 feet off the ground as they fly a 3-mile oval course around 50-foot telephone-pole pylons.

The races are held under visual flight rules, with pilots using their eyes and common sense to avoid other planes.

“It’s kind of a gentleman’s race,” Rahn said. “We realize things could get dangerous if you don’t behave. At the end of the day it’s just a plastic trophy.”

Reno bound

Rahn, 54, started his aviation career in the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft mechanic. He worked for Gulfstream, flew cargo and flew mosquito control for a year in Chatham County.

Rahn bought an aircraft maintenance shop at the Savannah airport in 1994 and changed its name Indigo Aviation. These days the shop is based at his grass airstrip in Effingham County.

Rahn, a member of the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority’s board, got involved in the Reno air races as something of a lark. His son Royce wanted to become an airline pilot and needed cross-country flying experience.

Rahn suggested they fly a two-seat Cessna 150 from Springfield to Reno in 2012 to watch the races.

It took four days there and four days back — a total of 53 flight hours — sitting side-by-side in the tiny airplane with a 39-inch-wide cockpit.

“Royce and I were connected at the shoulder and the hip for four days,” each way, he said.

These days, Royce is a pilot for Piedmont Airlines, based in Philadelphia.

The pair attended the races in Reno several more years.

In 2016, Rahn couldn’t find a buyer for a project plane he bought at an estate sale with the intention of flipping. So he decided to fix it and fly it himself.

From the time he made that decision in April, he and his crew worked feverishly to get ready.

He went to pylon racing school and the airplane was taken completely apart and put back together again.

The plane, which was built in 1979 by an amateur based on a set of plans, had never been raced before. Most recently, it sat idle for 10 years and was not airworthy.

“Every nut, screw and bolt got replaced or refurbished,” Rahn said, and all the fabric that covers the frame was replaced.

Rahn first flew the reassembled plane Aug. 6 and raced it in Reno in mid-September. Race rules required him to have 10 hours of experience flying the plane. He had 12.5 hours.

Rahn wears a parachute, helmet and fireproof clothing when he races.

His crew varies depending on the race, but has included Allen Jackson, a mechanic at Indigo Aviation; John Preacher, a mechanic for Delta in Atlanta; and Robert Gish, airworthiness inspector at Gulfstream.

His team won the Crew-of-the-Year award in 2016, which had never been won before by a rookie team. They also took fifth place out of eight airplanes that competed in the race for the slowest airplanes at the meet – the bronze race.

This September, Rahn moved up to the faster silver class and took second place, flying 204.178 mph.

The cost to race in Reno comes out of the pilots’ pockets — driving a trailer with the airplane on it, fuel and hotel bills.

Still, it’s less expensive than most people suspect. “It’s considered the blue-collar class of racing,” Rahn said. “The biggest expense is going out there.”

Rahn said airplanes that would race in his class could be purchased for $12,000 to $25,000.

All expenses for the Thailand trip are being paid for by Thailand’s Sports Authority in an effort to boost tourism. Up to 200,000 people are expected to attend the race, which will be televised live in Thailand and shown later in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Midget racers

The airplanes in Rahn’s IF1 class have 100 horsepower engines, the kind that power Cessna 150 airplanes that are used around the world to teach pilots to fly.

Heat Stroke can go as fast as 230 mph when flying straight and level.

The airplanes that compete in Reno and Thailand races look different from each other but must meet the same specific standards – minimum wing area of 66 square feet, fixed landing gear and a two-bladed wood or composite fixed-pitch propeller. The plane has to weigh at least 500 pounds and the pilot has to weigh at least 150 pounds.

Speed comes from having less weight, less drag, more power and a more efficient propeller.

One of the ways Heat Stroke got faster for this year’s Reno competition was by the pilot – Rahn — losing 24 pounds. And modifications cut the airplane’s weight by 42 pounds.

At 539 pounds, Heat Stroke was the lightest plane this year at Reno. “Every pound you leave on the ground is a pound you don’t have to lift,” Rahn said.

Heat Stroke has an eight-gallon fuel tank and burns 12 gallons per hour when flying full throttle.

Rahn has a stack of waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing him to race – waving such things as required minimum fuel, distance to other airplanes and distance to the ground.

In 2016, Rahn had an NBC Sports camera bolted to his wing. “It slowed me down 3 miles an hour,” he said. He didn’t offer to do it again this year.

After Thailand, the airplane will be shipped back to the United States and then trucked to Reno and on to Springfield.

Rahn said he needs it back in Springfield so he can make it faster for next year’s races.

He already holds an unofficial title. In Reno this year, he won a “slab wing” challenge for airplanes with similar, “Hershey bar” or non-tapered wings. “Unofficially I am the world’s fastest slab-wing, original-style Cassutt,” he said.

For more information about the Thailand races, visit www.airrace1.com