There are events in your life where you will always remember the time, place and what you were doing when they happened: September 11, 2001; your first solo; and, for me, a phone call and proposal from an air-racing legend.
It was 2:30 in the afternoon and I was putting gas in my car in Concord, California. I felt my phone ringing and it was Jon Sharp calling. Yes, that Jon Sharp.
Jon and his group built the winningest team in pylon air racing history and have a record in Formula One of winning 47 of the 50 races entered between 1991 and 1999, and collecting 15 Gold Reno championships in both the Formula One and Sport classes. After he proved his point in IF1, he, his wife Patricia, propeller designer Steve Hill, and a group of talented individuals put their minds together and a brand new racer was born.
The new emerging Sport class was exciting and had potential to take air racing to a refreshing new level with far less restrictive rules than IF1. The main rule the team had to work around is that all Sport class entries have to be kitted aircraft, with a minimum of five kits manufactured. All and all, that’s not an ideal requirement for a purpose-built racer, but the team got to work and the outcome was the Nemesis NXT. Small wing, tailwheel, and a really big angry engine up front, it fit the bill of a purebred racer. Two seats made it more attractive during the other 51 weeks of the year.
As the old saying goes, “If it looks fast, it will go fast,” and fast it did go! It looked like it was moving 400 mph just sitting there. In the following few years, Jon and the team dialed it in to set the bar pretty high in the Sport class. In his last year of racing in 2009, Jon set a new course record every day throughout the week and two more records on Sunday while taking the overall win. Jon retired from racing that year, and other than setting some impressive closed-course speed records in New Mexico in 2015, the NXT has silently sat.
In the realm of air racing, IF1 racing and Jon’s racing career, I’m barely a blip on the radar. I’ve attended the Reno Air Races every year since I was about 14, soloed at Stead at 21, and finally earned my private license there in 2003 at 23. From there I started flying professionally in 2004 and raced my first year at Reno in 2012 in the Formula One class. Fast forward six years and I’ve been fortunate to race four different racers on three different continents, flown over 12 different Formula One racers, and built a Shoestring and Cassutt racer with my brother.
So while the call from Jon wasn’t out of the norm as we would chat occasionally, his question is what got me: “We’re donating the NXT to the Smithsonian. We’ve talked about it and would like to ask: Are you interested in flying it there?”
Seriously? A legend of that caliber is asking me to fly his plane, one of the coolest and fastest modern racers, to the most prestigious museum in the aviation world? One doesn’t say no to that opportunity. Absolutely! It took a few months for all the pieces to come together. Jon and Patricia were putting on a presentation at the Smithsonian and it would be great to all be there at the same time, so we aimed for arrival at Washington Dulles on March 25, 2018.
With full optimism we set the plan in motion. The plane had been moved to Moriarty, New Mexico, for Jon’s record runs under the watchful eye of Steve Hill. The plan was for me to fly to New Mexico on a Sunday and work with Steve on getting checked out in the NXT with a few flights—then load and go. Steve had been Jon’s crew chief for most of his racing career, and their friendship goes back probably longer than I’ve been alive. I know Steve from the F1 class as he made the race propellers that have dominated the winner’s circle for the last 20 years. To say I was in great company was an understatement.
First things first; I had to get a few minutes in the NXT. Jon had sent me an outline of operating procedures and talked me through it over the phone. “On takeoff only go to 45 inches and 2600 rpm. It will go higher but don’t go there unless you need it; it is there, but I don’t recommend it.” What was I getting myself into? Is this what it’s like to grab an angry lion by the tail? Jon made it clear that 150 mph was the happy number for rotation, gear and flap speeds, and approach speed. Landing a taildragger at 150 mph? This will be fun.
To add some complication to the excitement, I was hit by a car on my motorcycle the day before. Although I was bruised and sore, I was fully functional and wasn’t going to let that stop the plan. Those who have met both Jon and me know he has almost a foot of height on me, so there were rudder pedal extensions and quite a few seat cushions in place. Among all this was the thought in the back of my mind that this is an irreplaceable artifact valued at over $1 million, and I’m delivering it to its final resting place in a very high profile museum. Don’t mess this up!
The NXT sits so nose high that raising the tail during takeoff feels like a 7-foot elevator ride. Visibility goes from nonexistent to great in an instant, and the rudder is more than powerful enough to cope. Power and prop set, tail up, and here comes 150 mph in a few seconds. Rotate, gear and flaps up, and you’re over 200 mph before you know it and climbing over 2000 fpm. Level off at 3000 feet above the field, pull back the power and prop, and try to catch up with the plane and take a breath.
I circled around for a bit getting the feel of it, then came back for the first landing. Jon said due to the long nose, a descending left carrier type turn works best. And it does. Approach at 160ish, wheel-landing touchdown at 150 mph, and hold the tail up as long as possible for visibility. Tail down, taxi clear, clean up, shut down and breathe. Steve came over and asked me what did I think? “Well,” I said, “not many planes make my hands sweat when I fly them, and with this one I was wiping my palms on my pants the whole time!”
We got in a few more flights, worked out a few little bugs and then starting prepping for the trip eastbound. The only issue we encountered was the gear doors occasionally didn’t lock closed. Other than that, the NXT was ready to go, which was pretty impressive given its last flight three years earlier was Jon’s speed record run.
The NXT has slightly staggered seating, and with Jon slightly forward and Patricia slightly aft, the CG worked well for them on their cross-country flights. Well, I was up as far as I could go with my short legs and Steve was in the rearward spot, so we had to run the few numbers and add a bit of ballast to the front to keep the CG happy. The cockpit is aft of the trailing edge of the wing, so there is a long moment arm for the crew to affect the CG. The crew had built a little box in the lower cowl behind the spinner where weight could be added to adjust the CG. We filled it as required and then looked at where we were going to put our necessities—basically only a toothbrush and a change of clothes. The NXT was built to go fast and cargo hauling was not in the design. There were two small compartments in the seat backs, and two even smaller compartments under our knees to stash stuff. Unlike Steve, who was heading back home after the delivery in D.C., I was continuing on to Missouri to ferry a Cessna 195 back to the West Coast with its new owner, so I had to really think about what was needed or not.
Cruising to Carbondale
Steve and I got everything sorted and were ready to launch Tuesday mid-day. The NXT will cover 800–1000 miles comfortably on a tank with reserves. I didn’t need to prove anything with short-field operations, so we mapped out the route to keep our stops at airports with about 6000 feet (or more) of runway. Loaded, fueled, everything checked and cameras rolling, Steve and I squeezed in and fired it up.
There were a few firsts on this flight. Steve had never had a chance to fly in the NXT because the cockpit wouldn’t accommodate two large occupants. And, as loaded for the trip, the plane was sitting at the most weight it had ever flown at. Built for Jon to race, there’s the typical center stick, throttle on the left side, and no rudder pedals or brakes on the right side, so Steve was definitely going for a ride.
We took off and after two attempts got the gear door closed, locked and happy. We climbed to 13,500 feet over the New Mexico desert and set a course for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Everyone enjoyed hearing how fast the plane goes wide open. We all know it hauls butt at race speed, but it’s equally impressive at cruise. Level at 13,500 feet, 40 inches of m.p. and 2500 rpm, it was running 400 mph true. The hottest cylinder was 330°F and oil was barely getting warm at 176°F. It made me think, how much more does this plane have in it? We will never know.
How does it fly? It is a very demanding plane—of your attention. A short time of playing with the GPS, and it was either climbing 1000 feet per minute or the ball was heading to the side of the inclinometer—or both. It’s a very jealous plane when you stop paying attention to it. Jon told me it flies like it’s on rails. Well, the next day I found that characteristic.
After being asked a few times what kind of experimental we were that was showing 370 knots across the ground, we set up for an arrival into Tulsa. Tulsa tower cleared us to land number 2 for an 8-mile straight-in behind a slow 737, so a steep approach gave us some visibility back. After a long taxi through the airline ramp, we made a quick turn for fuel and a bathroom stop. When we walked out of the FBO, the line guys were all around the plane and the fueler asked us, “Does this thing take jet fuel or avgas?” Smart guy though, as he doesn’t normally see this fast of a plane. Remember, it looks like it’s going 400 mph sitting there and has a pretty good size cowl to hide the engine.
Off from Tulsa we had the cranky gear door, so we kept our speed down a bit. After a hundred miles or so, the clouds below started to cover more, so we hopped down under the layer and brought the speed back to under 10,000-foot limits. We made Carbondale, Illinois, at sunset and called it a night. One of the coolest pictures I took was as I was getting out of the NXT and Steve was wrapping up a few things in the cockpit, the setting sun was coming through the canopy and the plane was silhouetted.
Under the Overcast
We topped off the fluids and were ready to go first thing the next morning. Jon told me the horizontal was plenty powerful for its size and also that there’s plenty of thrust up front, which I noticed but hadn’t played with much. With brakes on and lined up for takeoff, while getting the power and prop rpm set for takeoff, the tail started slowly rising up. Almost a 7-foot elevator ride, remember? I looked at Steve, smiled and added a bit more power, slight forward elevator and gently released the brakes for a 100% tail-up takeoff roll. We both got a kick out of that, but it wasn’t long before we were back stuck under the overcast at 1500 feet continuing east.
There are lots of towers near Cincinnati, Ohio, so I was busy following the course line and working out our next airport while Steve was following along, pointing out all the obstacles. We were running a bit under 30 inches of power, and it still was pushing the 250-knot under-10,000-foot limit. I can only imagine what someone on the ground thought when they looked up and saw this sleek speedster just hauling butt 1200 feet up at almost 300 mph.
As the weather continued to deteriorate and the rain started closing in, we settled on Clarksburg, West Virginia, and found the airport just as a rain cell was moving over the area. The tower cleared us for right traffic, and Steve made the concerned comment about total lack of visibility on the right-hand approach. I was fine before he said that, then started to doubt myself as his concern made me a bit nervous. But it all worked out fine, and the approach and landing were perfect. We taxied in, fueled up and rechecked weather.
There was a bit of a complication with the plane’s operating limitations that we were working on along the way. This NXT’s operating limitations prohibited it from being flown over populated areas and into Class B airspace, which is a much greater limitation than Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft typically work under. Well, Washington Dulles meets both those categories, so we were working that aspect out too. Steve and I looked at the weather for the last 200 miles and decided to depart and see if we could make an airport just on the edge of the D.C. Special Flight Rules Area. We took off and stayed low, working our way around some of the ridgelines and hoping to get to the other side of the mountain range. Well, we didn’t make it too far as 50 miles out the weather started coming down, and we ended up circling in a valley figuring out what direction to go. While Steve was looking at the valleys and how to get to our destination, I was staying under the overcast and playing with the GPS to look for airport options.
While we were circling the valley at almost 300 mph (still a very low power setting), it hit me. Loaded up in a turn, the NXT tracks like it’s on rails with no bad habits. Pitch and yaw were super stable, and it wasn’t nervous at all, just rock solid. That’s what Jon was talking about. Steve and I came to the conclusion to turn back to Clarksburg and call it a day. The overcast was dropping down and the pass we came in through was now just a small gap, but we got back and started working on Plan B. Weather and paperwork were against us, so we decided to park it in West Virginia.
The NXT is not a plane one wants to leave outside, so we called around looking for a hangar for a few weeks until we could come back and get it. I chuckled when the lady on the phone asked what year and type of plane it was for the hangar space. How could I explain that one? Anyway, we were lucky to come across Ed Waske from Engine & Airframe Solutions Worldwide, LLC. We quickly found out that Ed is a big Reno race fan and knew of the NXT. We had no doubt the NXT was going to be in safe hands for the next few weeks.
Driving to D.C.
Steve and I rented a car and drove the rest of the way to D.C. to meet up with the rest of the group. The next day we toured the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and it was awesome to see the predecessors of speed such as the Hughes H-1 racer, Wittman Bonzo, and Curtiss R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle raced. Jon and Patricia had their presentation that evening and then we were off headed westbound while we continued to plan the last leg.
The paperwork and weather sure weren’t on our side to finish the flight easily. That time of year there, the rain seemed to never stop. The FSDO in D.C. had a different interpretation of the operating limitations than the FSDO in Albuquerque where it was issued last. Between Steve, Jon, General James Crum in D.C. and Bill Hudson of the Soaring Museum in Moriarty, we got the paperwork sorted out over the next few weeks, found some open time in our schedules, and at last the weather lined up. We finally got a waiver to enter the Class Bravo with the NXT.
There were certain time windows we had to arrive in that were only a few minutes long. We kept getting advised that they would basically have to shut down the airport to allow us to arrive. I got a little fed up with the extreme procedures and reminded all parties that the NXT will fly faster on final than most of the airliners, and that they would be slowing us down and not the other way around.
All was a go, so Steve and I headed back out to West Virginia. We were happy to see Ed and the NXT, and he was stoked to have us. As much as he enjoyed having it on display in his hangar, he was excited to see it fly and knew it was on its way to a place in history. While we were waiting for the fog to clear and fueling it up, I was wiping the dust off it and Steve made the comment that I missed a spot. Actually, he said I missed the same spot twice, so I was wondering what was going on. I took a closer look at where he was talking about, and sitting there under the crew names was a sticker saying, “Last flown by Justin Phillipson.” What a big honor to be named.
The Final Flight
Steve and I strapped in for the last takeoff of the NXT and fired it up. Ed had quite the group present for our departure, and we gave him the best flyby we could while still being speed legal and neighbor friendly. Ed posted a short video on YouTube entitled “Nemesis NXT Final Flight.” The last 40 minutes of the flight to Dulles were uneventful, and Steve and I enjoyed the scenery as the clouds slowly cleared.
Before entering the SFRA, we contacted ATC and were right on time to enter our arrival window. Steve planned it all perfectly. We were assigned Runway 1R for landing, but I realized I would have a 17-knot direct crosswind. While I was comfortable and it didn’t bother me to land with that, there was no reason to challenge myself on the last landing when a more suitable runway was available. We asked Dulles tower for a left base short approach for Runway 30 and were cleared to land.
Steve shot one of my favorite pictures of the trip as we were turning base. We looked over and saw the Udvar-Hazy Center slide under the right wing. He snapped a picture of the museum with the wing and big pink 3X on it. I can only imagine what the three corporate jets and two airliners thought as they were holding short and Steve and I made a quick short approach and landed in front of them.
After a taxi to the terminals, through the cargo ramp, then all the way south past Runway 1R to the museum, we shut it down for the last time. That chapter in history is closed. Bittersweetly, we pushed it into the restoration hangar for its preparation to be on permanent display. Steve went over with museum tech Rocky Weihrauch how to perform the tasks involved of draining all fluids, removing batteries, and accessing certain components on the NXT.
Six weeks later the aircraft was ready for its entrance into the main exhibit hall at the Udvar-Hazy. Jon, Patricia, and a large group that made this plane so successful were all on hand to help push the NXT from the restoration center to the exhibit hall aircraft entrance. Museum curator Jeremy Kinney went above and beyond to accommodate us before and after the NXT arrived; he coordinated to have the original Nemesis racer pushed out, and for the first time in history Jon, Patricia and the crew got to see Nemesis and the NXT next to each other. We took plenty of pictures before we rolled both racers to their resting spots under the wing of the Boeing 707-80 prototype.
What an incredible adventure and a perfect way to retire this plane into history. Thank you to the Sharps and Steve Hill for letting me be a small part of the story.
Photos: Justin Phillipson and Steve Hill