How nice is he? Well, since he lives way down in Mojave we couldn't get together for a face to face interview. So he answered all my questions and did a ton of writing to do it! He's a great guy and a lot of fun.
So here's our interview - I hope you like it!
How did you get into flying?
I came from a flying family. My father is a private pilot; going to the airport when I was growing up was a big deal. All the kids in the family learned to ride their bicycles at the airport, on the taxiways in front of the hangar; the first time I drove a car it was on the airport. The first Saturday of the month was our EAA Chapter 55’s monthly meeting. After the pancake breakfast when the meeting would start I would go out to the creek between the taxiway and the runway and catch frogs and crayfish, this was well before the 9-11 airport restrictions. It was pretty cool, I would be all covered in mud and an airplane would land and I would have a front row seat, just me and the cat tails.
Were you interested in airplanes as a kid?
Definitely, as far back as I can remember I alternated from airplane designer and fighter pilot for career of choice. From when I was about 6, the highlight of the summer would be when our EAA chapter would have its yearly dawn patrol/air show. My dad took pride in parking the airplanes that would be landing for the pancake breakfast and taught me to do the same. He would make sure I got an orange vest and the orange sticks necessary to convince a pilot that a young kid was actually telling them where to park their airplane. Since my dad didn’t think I was big enough for Oshkosh yet (he made the trip to Mecca yearly), this was my biggest aviation event of the year. When I was 8, I got to direct a Ford Tri-Motor and a DC-3 to park, and I was pretty sure that was the coolest thing that had ever happened. When I was 8 I got to go to Oshkosh for the first time. My old man wasn’t sure I would be able to handle it so he had a buddy fly me in the day before he was planning to fly the swift home. It was a really big deal to be able to go. I knew that if I complained or got too tired or whatever the opportunity would not arrive again. The rules were I carried the backpack in exchange for being able to come along. I got a ride in with a family friend in a 172 and as we came over lake Michigan I remember the airplanes reflecting in the sun as far as I could see. On short final I was looking out the right side of the airplane as we landed on 27, I remember seeing not one but two DC-3s parked down by Basler and having to contain myself (didn’t want to talk on the intercom that close to landing). That year I got to sit in a real P-51 down in the warbird area and saw the GeeBee from the movie The Rocketeer. I guess I performed up to the task because my dad let me fly in with him the next year and spend the full three days he had planned for the event. I remember watching Jon run his speed trials and Bohannon do the time to climb, ever since then Oshkosh has been like a family reunion for me. When I got hired at Scaled I made sure to confirm that I would be able to keep up this tradition, and brought it up in the interview.
Miss Ashley II and Bill Rogers at Oshkosh
Was there something special that happened?
I think a big part of how my aviation interest ended up, centered on the fact that my dad flew a Swift. When I was in middle school we repainted it and replaced the 125 Continental with a 210 Continental. The airport I grew up at didn’t have anything like that at the time; so this little fighter-looking plane (that as far as I was concerned might as well have been a Mustang) was a big attention getter at the airport, and I picked up on that. I think it focused my interest on speed and high performance airplanes. Another factor must have been that Reno was during the school year and was on the other side of the country, which meant that when my dad went (three times that I remember), I wasn’t invited. The event was able to grow in my mind. My dad would bring back pictures and he had a couple books on the races and that was all I had to work with. I think that and the sleek lines of his Swift turned Reno and air racing into an obsession that has led to my current predicament. By the time I first made it to Reno (as a crew member on Nemesis in 2005) the bug was already dug in.
What made you decide to get involved in air racing?
I was in Mechanical Engineering school in New York; I was wrenching at a Triumph shop during the school year and building PT-17s and T-6s for a gentleman named Dave Groh back in Michigan during the summer. I had been doing this kind of work on the side since high school. I remember the first time I saw a manual (I think it was for a 1340), it had ‘Restricted’ typed on the top of each page; I came home from work that day and told my dad about how I was working on classified stuff at the shop. The way I saw it that ‘Restricted’ warning proved that a 1340 wasn’t far from a 3350 and, well, 3350s race at Reno - so basically I was working on Rare Bear. My Dad isn’t an engineer, but he taught me from a young age that the airplanes that mattered had round engines and tail wheels; he hasn’t ventured far down the long road with a Bearcat on the other end, but he was able to step back and look at the big picture for me back then. He told me “no one is ever going to pay you as an engineer to work on WWII aviation”. At the time it was tough to hear, but those words created the itch that got me here. I sat down and made a list of the coolest modern aviation companies I could think of. The two companies at the top of that list were Nemesis Air Racing and Scaled Composites. The Sharps responded to the letter I wrote them almost immediately; I picked up the phone and Trish was on the other end (talk about a direct connection to Reno). I flew commercial to Mojave for my spring break to meet the Sharps and confirm it wasn’t just a dream. I spent that week in the same hangar as a real Reno Racer (I had still never been to the races). As soon as the semester was over I drove from New York to Mojave and joined team Nemesis. If there is a machine that could stir an interest in the sport it’s the NXT and if there is a team the Sharps would be leading it. After the summer of 2005 there was no question I was going to be spending a lot more time in Mojave.
"My first radial in my old bosses shop in MI, a Cont 670 that ended up on a Stearman"
"Jon Sharp, My first summer with team Nemesis, and the day I first saw the NXT fly"
"Wrenching on the Pink Rocket at Oshkosh on Aeroshell square (it doesn’t get much better)"
"W/ Jon and the Pink Rocket"
"W/Jon in his Wasabi shirt, One of my all time favorite photos"
How come you got into air racing, why not say aerobatics? Are you also into aerobatics?
Aerobatics, as with all of flying, are a lot of fun. As far as aerobatic competition, I don’t like the qualitative nature of the sport. The draw of Reno for me is its simplicity. Everyone comes to the same place, in the same air, at the same time and they are measured on a very quantifiable parameter: who is the fastest - and what could be cooler than that?! There is no other place in the aviation world where that happens. Cross country racing can’t be enjoyed by the spectator, record setting - same thing; take the significance of the NXTs performance over the last few years, GA has not seen performance jumps like that since WWII and thousands of people saw it live at Reno. The Reno Championship Air Races are the most significant event for driving forward GA, and for that reason it is the most important event on my airshow calendar and I feel priviledged to be a part of it.
Why did you want to start out in Formula One? My dad thinks it’s because you get the biggest bang for the buck.
The formula class is certainly the most economical class. As a lowly engineer, money is certainly always a factor. I could have spent many years saving and borrowing until I could buy a Legacy or a T6, but obviously that would be a lot to invest in air racing when I still knew so little about it. Team Wasabi has always been about taking small steps, just like going to work for Dave and grinding my first valve seat, or calling the Sharps (ok that was a big step); Wasabi is about finding the quickest and cheapest way into the arena to determine whether or not this is what I am interested in. In 2008, during my first race week as a pilot I was scared out of my mind, and this year I was much more comfortable. I hope that the rest of my career offers that same level of improvement.
Are you hoping to move into another class or do you want to stay in F1 for now?
My old man raised me on the Rare Bear and to rebel I rooted for Miss AshleyII, but when I told my father I would rather fly the pink NXT than any other plane that had ever raced at Stead - he really thought I was crazy. Unfortunately, that seat isn’t available, and although the sport class is the most interesting class at Reno, I think it would be a fool’s errand to try to get around that NXT. In the meantime, my Cassutt burns a lot less gas and teaches me skills that I can one day apply to a lot of different airplanes; so for now F1 is the place to be.
What are your plans for more speed from your Cassutt?
I’ll tell you in October.
You guys in F1 fly really close together it seems to me. Is there much wake turbulence you have to watch out for?
At those altitudes on a sunny day in the desert there is plenty of turbulence without the help of the planes in front of you. This last year was the first time I had ever been in an airplane and hit the roll stop to correct a roll rate and continued to roll away from the stick. Wake turbulence will always be a gremlin in the sport of air racing. However, I heard there is a cure, something about getting out in front; I’ll let you know if its true when I get there! :)
What is it like to be in a race at Reno and can you describe a Reno race lap?
Racing at Reno is intense, dangerous, way cool, but mostly its flying. High risk aviation is about managing that risk while sorting and analyzing large amounts of data efficiently. Whether its flight test, combat, or Jon turning a 400mph lap: it takes every bit of concentration you can give it. If you could find the course blindfolded, there would be systems to manage; and if your head was always in the cockpit managing systems, you wouldn’t be able to keep track of the other racers. That is the overwhelming characteristic of racing; the guys that are really moving are also really busy. Which is why a guy like Jon has such an advantage, he has won more races than anyone on the planet and just like anything else, the more times you do something the easier it is and therefore the less bandwidth it takes to do. Racing Wasabi is about building that account of racing experience.
I am still learning what a race lap at Reno should be like, and the beauty of a slow airplane is you get lots of time to learn. The formula course has two turns and two straights. Turns are a very big part of all racing; I find that the actual task of flying the airplane is the most saturating on this part of the track, particularly the beginning of the turn. The straights become the chance to do everything else - look for traffic, check the engine, etc. It’s very easy to get consumed by a particular task and loose track of the other pieces of the puzzle. For instance, rolling out of pylon 3 and on to the back straight, you look down to check your oil pressure and you’re trying to remember what it read the last time you checked it. Next thing you know you look up and you’re late to start to roll into 4, which means you’re wide on 5 and pulling more Gs (which can be very disorienting); now you’re going to be tight on 6 so you have roll back out of the turn early to save the pylon then roll back up to line up for the straight. All that trouble because of a second glance at an oil pressure reading (and that’s at only 180mph).
W/ SS1 at Scaled
Working at Scaled Composites must be really cool. What kinds of projects are you working on? What is your specialty?
Scaled is definitely very cool. Lately I have been working on the White Knight airplane (the mothership for the x-prize winning SpaceShipOne). We build, test and fly payloads for customers. The configuration of White Knight gives it a lot of versatility under the fuselage, allowing us to carry payloads that otherwise would have to be flown by much bigger, more expensive to operate airplanes. We are able to fly those payloads to reasonably high altitudes so that our customers can run their experiments. The nice thing about Scaled is you get to do a lot of different stuff. Since hiring on, I have worked on the new Space Ship, I have flown co-pilot in the Proteus research airplane, and many other very cool tasks. Scaled has given me incredible opportunities to work on some of the coolest stuff out there, and yes we are hiring. I have been very lucky so far not to have a specialty.
"W/ Astronaut Mike Melvill in Proteus on a test flight"
"W/ Pete Siebold, My first flight in White Knight"
"W/ Pete Siebold (head of flight test for Scaled) After my first flight on White Knight"
Tell me about your call sign/nickname "Stinky"
My good friend Zach Reeder was instrumental in the early stages of the Wasabi program. Back when the project was a scary pile of parts Zach made sure nobody got too intimidated. There is little doubt in my mind that I would not have had the confidence necessary to put a first flight on the airplane without him. He came up with the nickname, it one of those cockney rhymes, so Elliot Smelliot, stinky. Its certainly not the most flattering name, but I am flattered to carry it, besides it could be worse.
"W/ my race ticket at while at Oshkosh w/Nemesis"
Working at Mojave with Scaled composites and all the other high tech aeronautical people, are you able to pick brains and get speed ideas from them?
I moved to Mojave to be around the best in the business. The great thing about having a project like Wasabi is you have an excuse to take advantage of those resources. This area has the highest concentration of race pilots on the planet. I find the hardest part is processing all the information that comes from these sources. Aero design especially in GA and Air Racing has a lot of voodoo, a lot of opinions directly contradict each other its tough to sort through it, and its nice to have the best in the business to help find the path. The goal of Wasabi has always been to learn, and there is no better place on the planet to learn about this stuff than Mojave.
"W/ "My dad, and the hardware, after my first race week as a pilot"
"W/ W/my Crew Chief Jennifer Whaley and her cowling at Mojave"
"A few of the folks at Mojave that make Wasabi possible"
Until then, be sure to visit his very cool website! It's full of great interviews Elliot's done, pictures, and other cool stuff including t-shirts!
Very special thanks to Elliot Seguin for taking so much of his time to answer all my question.
All pictures courtesy of Elliot Seguin - except for two I got at Reno.