Steven Hinton, a seven-time national air racing champion and pilot of the world’s fastest propeller-driven, piston-powered aircraft, will be presenting about his career on Thursday, February 21 at 7 p.m. at the EAA Aviation Museum as part of the Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.
Steven, son of Steve Hinton, EAA 181203, who is also a champion air racer and president of the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, grew up with aviation in his blood and by his teenage years was already learning to fly advanced aircraft. Starting out his flight training in a Cessna 150, Steven quickly transitioned to a Luscombe, then to an L-5. By the time he was 17 years old, he was flying a Stearman and was into a T-6 at 18. At 19, Steven was flying Mustangs.
“It was one of those things, I was flying every day so I was broke every day because that’s where all my money went,” Steven explained. “I started flying while I was in high school, so I scheduled my classes to where I could go to the airport every day after school. Then I went to college just 20 minutes up the road from the airport and I was able to get my schedule from like 8 in the morning until 10 at night two days a week, so I was at the airport all the time. The reason I was able to get into a Mustang at a young age was because I flew the T-6 for over 100 hours that first year [of college] and was checked out in it. That kind of opened the door and opportunity to jump into a Mustang.”
Although the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, were something Steven was well aware of growing up, his true introduction to the event came in 2002. With his father flying the pace jet during the races, Steven traveled to Reno to help clean the windscreen and happened to notice a P-51D Mustang that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would play a large role in his career path in the years to come.
“I was out there for the start of the [Unlimited class] Gold race, the lineup, and introductions. There was Sea Furys and Bearcats and what have you, but at the end of that row was Strega starting last,” Steven said. “I had never been up close to a modified racing Mustang. There was something about the Mustang and the lines of it, and how small it looked and it was like ‘Wow!’ It really captured my attention. It sparked something inside of me to where it was like ‘I want to be a part of this. How do I do that?’ Again, I was in high school, though. I went home and pulled out a bunch of my dad’s stuff out of the attic — air race stuff — and I just became obsessed with air racing.”
In 2004, Steven took time off from school to spend more time around air racing and met Bill Destefani, the owner of Strega.
“He knew who I was, and obviously knew who my dad was, and I asked him if it would be okay to come up and look at his airplane — it was a two-hour drive from Chino,” Steven said. “It hadn’t raced since 2002. [Bill] was farming cotton at the time, so he gave me a phone number for a guy by the name of L.D. Hughes, he was the crew chief and worked at the hangar full time on other projects. In the fall of 2004, I called L.D. and started going up on weekends. They were actually trying to get the airplane ready to race in 2005, so I’d go up to Bakersfield every weekend or so. In 2004 into the spring of 2005, he asked if I wanted to go to Reno and crew with them. It was a small crew, so I’m sure he was thinking he needed a gopher or somebody to clean the airplane or whatnot. That was kind of my start in air racing.”
Fast forward a few years and Steven was much more than a gopher at the Reno Air Races. In his debut in 2008, Steven flew P-51D Sparky to a third-place finish in the Bronze Race of the Unlimited class. The following year, Steven won his first Unlimited-class Gold Race national championship in Strega. Steven won three more championships in Strega in 2010, 2011, and 2012 and then won three additional championships flying P-51D Voodoo in 2013, 2014, and 2016, capping an incredible run of success at Reno.
Most recently, Steven was in the news for breaking the world speed record for a propeller-driven, piston-powered aircraft, doing so in Voodoo in 2017 with a speed of 531.53 mph — breaking the record of 528 mph set by Lyle Shelton in 1989 in the F8F Bearcat Rare Bear.
“It started out really as a childhood, not even a goal, but a distant dream,” Steven said of the speed record. “Lyle Shelton had been the last one to attempt it, and I think that was in ’89. It hadn’t even been done in years, for monetary reasons or whatever. Reno was something that occurred every year, and that was a more tangible, achievable goal in my opinion. The speed record was more of a distant dream.”
After years of discussions about going for the speed record in Voodoo, Steven and his team finally went for it in the late summer of 2017 in Idaho. With Voodoo experiencing a number of mechanical and logistical issues prior to the run, a small crew working on the airplane, and wildfires in the Pacific Northwest reducing visibility, the speed record attempt almost didn’t happen in 2017 but Steven and the Voodoo crew managed to make it happen. The record run itself was far from a drama-free event, as Steven explained.
“In that record run,
the first pass went fine, the second pass went fine. I was in communication
with guys on the radio on the ground, they let me know after the second pass
that it was streaming a bunch of oil out of a breather on the airplane and in
between the third and the fourth — which is the final pass — the oil pressure
essentially fell by half,” he said. “It went from 125 pounds down to 70 pounds.
At that point, you’re left with a split second decision while, of course,
you’re traveling 800 feet per second close to the ground. That decision, which is made in a fraction of
a second, is do you pull up, do the safe thing, and try to land the airplane,
which disqualifies you from the record attempts. All the work would be gone. We
knew the engine was failing, so it wasn’t going to be like we were going to get
it fixed in time. Do you go out the full distance? We computed we would go out 8
miles from the record, the 3-kilometer area, to do these big turnarounds so we
don’t bleed the speed by pulling 4 or 5g
— you want to keep it at 2g. Do you
go out that far and hope that the engine works? … If it doesn’t, you can’t make
it back to the runway and you’ve got to put it down off the runway and damage a
lot of stuff.”
Steven’s ultimate decision was to pull a higher number of g’s and “get back across the finish line.”
“I ended up pulling
about 4.5g coming back around, making
the final pass, which bled a bunch of speed off unfortunately,” he said. “It
knocked about 30 mph off the speed of that pass. Immediately I went into
downwind for landing and the engine was gone, you’d try to move the throttle
and nothing was reacting. It was shaking and making a lot of different noises.
Shut the engine down on landing and rolled out — there was oil everywhere and
coolant everywhere. We pulled the cowling off and there was broken parts laying
at the bottom of the cowling. At that point, you’re just waiting for the
results to come in. The flying was pretty intense, but it wasn’t so much the
flying, it was the decision-making and how quickly you had to make those
Although Steven is still young, he’s accomplished feats in aviation that many pilots spend their entire careers chasing. That in mind, he knows he didn’t get to this point by himself.
“You can’t do it without
the people — especially having smart people around you, especially at that age,”
he said. “I think when I first flew Strega,
I was 20 years old and there’s not many people that would trust a 20-year-old
kid with a multimillion dollar piece of equipment to go fly it first of all,
but then to go race it. Having people believe in me, or give me those
opportunities, I wouldn’t be where I am today by any means unless those people
took that chance.”