Reno Air Races Reno Nevada USA Steed Airport
Credit: Alamy

The warplanes start high and lazy, circling like hawks on the hunt. They are clocking 300 miles per hour, nearing the limits of what they were designed to do. Soon, the announcement comoes over the radio: "Gentlemen, you have a race."

The hawks spy a mouse on the desert floor – the first of eight pylons that mark today's Reno Air Races course – and dive, screaming toward the sand. Their propellers chew the air in meaty chunks. Outpacing gravity, the planes start to shimmy and buck, now approaching 500 miles per hour. At those speeds, the pilots say it's like having petroleum jelly smeared across your eyeballs. From a distance they look like birds of prey. The pilots call them warbirds.

I was waiting peacefully beneath pylon 4, about four miles away. When I asked the pylon judge where the planes would appear, he pointed and said, "Over the ridge." Then he laughed. "You'll see."

They hit us before we even heard them, driving hard against the bubble of sound. I was actually looking away, but I knew the planes had arrived because they tore the air out of my lungs. The sound came after, so heavy and loud it knocked us all back a step. The ants in your yard may tell stories about lawnmower blades, but even they don't know the terror of a WWII-era Mustang passing over you at close to 500 miles per hour, sideways, at spitball altitude. Earplugs fail. You can only hope for an even number of planes to pass by, because each one successively takes you by the ear and turns you inside out.

And this was just a qualifying round at last fall's Reno Air Races, the fastest show on earth. It's also one of the most dangerous. Three years ago a plane called Ramblin' Rose disintegrated at 300 mph in front of the grandstand. Former fighter pilot Tommy Rose had thousands of hours of joystick time in military and civilian planes. He died instantly. After a pause to clean up the wreckage, the day's races continued. Since the Reno Air Races' inception 41 years ago, a dozen pilots have died.

As the air folded back around us, we stood and blinked at one another, stunned. Watching the planes whip away toward the next pylon I wondered, Who on earth do these guys think they are?