Member # 722
TWA Captain Lyle Shelton knew only one way to fly -- fast -- and it's the primary reason his name and that of his plane, Rare Bear, is etched in the record books of the Reno National Championship Air Races.
Shelton, 76, died Thursday near his home in Bakersfield, Calif., after a long illness.
Shelton flew Rare Bear, a World War II Grumman Bearcat that he salvaged from an Indiana cornfield for $2,500, to a record six Unlimited Gold championships, including four consecutive from 1988 to 1991, setting speed records along the way.
"He got where he got by his almost blind determination to win, and because of that charisma he brought to the mix, people followed him," his stepson, John Slack, wrote on an aviation message board. "Lyle is now gone from us, his stamp on the sport that he loved is indelible. Lyle started out with big dreams and realized them."
Shelton was a Navy lieutenant who had missed a connecting flight to Hawaii in 1964, the year of the inaugural Reno Air Races. He volunteered on an Unlimited plane crew that year and was hooked by the sport.
In 1964, he piloted Tonopah Miss to a sixth-place finish in the Unlimited Gold Race and the next year flew Mike Carroll's Hawker Sea Fury, placing second in the Unlimited consolation race.
After leaving the Navy, he signed on with Trans World Airlines in 1966 and piloted Boeing 707s, 727s and Lockheed L-101s until his retirement in March 1991.
By 1968, he was looking for his own racing plane.
Walt Ohlrich, another Navy pilot and air racer, told Shelton of a wrecked F8F at an airport at Valparaiso, Ind. Shelton found it upside down in a cornfield, missing its Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine and other vital parts.
"A P-51 or Bearcat at that time would have cost about $20,000," Shelton told longtime Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Phil Barber during a 2003 interview. "I bought it for $2,500."
Shelton scrambled to collect the missing parts and began racing the plane in Reno in 1969 under the name Able Cat.
Two years later, he renamed it Phoenix after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes, and over the years, the name changed several more times to accommodate sponsors. But in 1980, at the suggestion of aviation writer John Tegler, it permanently became Rare Bear.
Shelton won his first Unlimited Gold title in 1973 and followed it with another in 1975, then the four straight from 1988 to 1991.
An article by author and historian Preston Lerner in the Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine in November 2009 aptly described Shelton's style.
"Shelton didn't just own the Bear; he flew the bejeezus out of it," Lerner wrote. "... (He) belongs on the short list of greatest air racing pilots ever. But what made him such a crowd favorite was how he won his races. 'Fly fast' was his motto."
Shelton set the Unlimited Class speed record at Reno three times. He still owns the 3K speed record of 528.33 mph.
His flying style, plus the Bear team's blue-collar approach (most of the crew were volunteers), made Rare Bear a fan favorite in Reno. After a blown engine in 1999, the plane sat idle for four years until donations from fans helped resurrect the team in 2004.
Shelton stopped flying in 1997, and John Penney has been the primary pilot since. He has won four Unlimited Gold titles in Rare Bear, the latest in 2007. He finished second in the 2009 Unlimited Gold race.
In 2006, Shelton sold Rare Bear to Rod Lewis, a San Antonio oil man and avid warbird collector.
The Reno Air Racing Association issued a statement after Shelton's death.
"Lyle will be remembered always and we will miss him greatly."
Services for Shelton are pending.
Rest in Peace, Captain Shelton
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