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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Operations: The Nascar Air Force

Douglas W. Nelms

The U.S.’s fastest growing sporting event is coming to terms with the traffic problems that its own popularity has created.

WHEN FOUR AUTOMOTIVE BUSINESSMEN — CARL FISHER, James Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby — built a large oval track out of bricks in their native city of Indianapolis, Ind. in 1909, it was designed as a way to test the new automobiles and engines just finding their way into American society. A few short races were run during the next year, but in 1911 the owners decided to hold a single major event — a grueling 500-mi race to be run that May 1. The purpose was to sell tickets to the newly developing sport of auto racing.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Today, auto racing has become one of the fastest growing sports in America, with racing enthusiasts flocking to the nation’s race courses by the hundreds of thousands — all driving automobiles. The only things that haven’t changed significantly are the roads getting to and from the tracks. They are basically the same roads, just better paved. In fact, getting to and from any of the numerous race tracks around the country has become a nightmare, even for the drivers involved in the races. The driver who said it takes him longer to get from the track to the airport than it did for him to run the race may have been exaggerating just a bit — but not by much.

Dale Jarrett, one of the famed "old timers" of NASCAR, noted that when the tracks were built, "there were maybe 60,000-70,000 people there. Now, we have 120,000-175,000 people at the same place and most haven’t built any more roads to get in or out. So we pretty much use helicopters everywhere."

Which is why the use of helicopters at the nation’s NASCAR race tracks is a rapidly growing phenomena.

Not counting the helicopters transporting drivers, owners and sponsors to and from the tracks, at any given time during a race the odds are there will be one or more helicopters circling high overhead. One aircraft stays aloft as the relay vehicle for video fed directly from cameras inside the race cars to a receiving truck. Other helicopters belong to local and national television stations recording the race. There will also be medevac helicopters waiting in the infield in the event of a major crash.

The use of aircraft by individual NASCAR drivers and team owners is nothing new, with the existence of a "NASCAR Air Force" fairly well known. This consists of 115 fixed wing aircraft ranging from small turboprops to corporate 727s.

The introduction of helicopters by owners and drivers is more current. With a few exceptions, most races are too far away from the home base of most drivers — generally located in the area around Charlotte, N.C. Thus the ownership of a helicopter has to be carefully weighed between the costs of the machine vs. the benefits it will provide for other endeavors.

The Racing Team Aviation Assn. (RTAA) an organization created to support the use of aircraft by NASCAR, reports only five helicopters owned by either an individual driver or by a team, including Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt, Jr and the Hendrick Motorsports team.

This is not to say that drivers and team owners don’t use helicopters — they just tend not to own them. A veritable fleet of helicopters can be found at the track on any given race day, provided by companies that lease the aircraft for use by anyone willing to pay for their services.

One of the biggest providers of helicopter support for NASCAR racing is ETA Logistics, created through the merger of CTC Sports Marketing and Henry Aviation in 2004.

"We are an all-encompassing logistics service," said Jeff Flournoy, co-founder and partner in the Orlando, Fla. and Fort Worth, Texas-based company. "We started in the helicopter business then expanded to anything that has to do with getting in and out of and around races. We do charters and ground logistics, but 75 percent of the business is using the helicopter as the most functional way to get people around a crowd of 150,000-160,000 people."

Ronnie Fountain, who helped found the RTAA and serves on its board of directors, noted NASCAR moved roughly 1,750 people to every race, with the racing team owners required contract to get their drivers to and from the race. The aircraft involved consume an average of 40,000 gal per race.

Along with physically flying people into and out of the race tracks, ETA Logistics provides an advisory service for the operation of aircraft flying into and around the track before and during a race.

"When we started, there was no common frequency for people to talk on. You would have six banner tow aircraft over the track, the Goodyear blimp, the uplink helicopter doing the in-car camera work, the media helicopter doing the footage, the medical helicopters and then four F-16s doing a fly-over for the National Anthem and nobody’s talking to each other," Flournoy said. "Also, there were no helipads. There was just a grass field and the approach was to just tell the pilots, ‘Go land over there.’"

ETA Logistics will work with a track owner to establish a common frequency as well as setting up landing and parking areas plus entry and exit routes for the helicopters. It also provides an advisor on the ground to coordinate helicopter operations.

Flournoy is very careful to ensure that ETA Logistics is considered an advisor and not a controller, an official FAA designation, he said. "I won’t say we’ve got a controller, but we have an advisor who talks to the pilots and we manage the advisor at every track. The gentleman whom we use is an ex-DFW air traffic controller."

The heliports developed for the track, whether they are outside of the track itself or in the in-field are considered private helipads and not required to be licensed by the FAA. However, "we try to meet as many of the FAA requirements as possible to make it a safe environment." The company also marks and fences off the area for the helipads as well as providing fire suppression services.

One major function ETA Logistics provides is to work with the FAA to develop entry and exit routes. Pilots contact the advisory service at each track to get the frequency and entry and exit routes. They are controlled by the FAA until they initiate the entry and are picked up by FAA upon departing the exit route.

Even this is not failsafe. On Nov. 20, 2005, an EC130B4 was on a straight approach to the Homestead, Fla. race track when the blades hit the skids of an AS350B that was turning into the track’s heliport. The EC130 crashed, killing the pilot, while the AS350B was able to land, safely but heavily damaged. Both aircraft were operating under VFR rules and the weather was clear. The AS350 was owned and operated by Biscayne Helicopters, Inc. The EC130 was operated by HeliFlight, Inc. Both helicopters were in-bound on positioning flights awaiting the end of the race.

ETA Logistics does not own its own helicopters, Flournoy said. "We looked at ownership of helicopters but we ran the numbers and realized that it did not make sense. We may be in Phoenix (Ariz.) one week, Miami the next, then Martinsville, Va. the next.

"So what we did was develop a network of what we call ‘approved operators,’ who meet specific criteria throughout the country," Flournoy said. "During the off-season, we re-up the information and determine who our approved operators will be for the coming season. Most of those do not change since we work with the bigger operators throughout the country" such as HeloAir in Richmond, Va. "The president of HeloAir is Whit Baldwin, who does 17 races for us out of 37 events, so he is one of our larger operators," he said.

The majority of helicopters used are light single-engine aircraft, specifically the Bell 407, 206 and 206L. However, "in the last four years, we’ve gotten quite a few corporate clients who require twins, so we’ve gotten Agustas (109s), a 412 out of Texas and a 222 and Twin Star out of Chicago."

ETA Logistics provides different levels of service. In general, anyone wanting to be airlifted into and/or out of the track contracts with ETA Logistics for a seat on a helicopter, rather than leasing the entire aircraft.

Although there are currently few NASCAR drivers who own their own helicopters, that number could increase as drivers become or are aware of the secondary value of helicopters beyond just getting to and from a race track. Although Rusty Wallace has retired from NASCAR, he is keeping his Bell 427 to give to his son Stephen also a NASCAR driver.

"You are absolutely going to see more helicopters in NASCAR because now the sport just keeps growing, more people keep going to the track, congestion at the race track gets even worse and to move all our sponsors in and out is just getting more and more difficult. You’re going to see more and more for sure."

Dale Jarrett owns a Bell 407 because "two buddies, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace" both had 407s and "were all the time telling me that if I needed one for anything, going to my car dealership or just going to appearances or anything that I didn’t want to have to take the time to drive, they’d let me use theirs. I found out how beneficial it was."

It was the opportunity to be home more that sold Jarrett on the idea of owning a helicopter. "That is something I’m always looking for. We have so many commitments. It’s not that we lose sight of the money that it costs to own and operate (a helicopter), but sometimes in our business time becomes a lot more important that any of that."

Jarrett averages about 123-150 hr a year on his 407.

Most drivers employ professional pilots to fly their helicopters. However, Biffle has been taking flying lessons in a Robinson R44 and figures to fly about 150 hr a year.

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