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Home Base: San Antonio, TX
Operation: Western USA
Model: F8F-2
Wing Span:
30' 6"
Length: 28' 3"
Height: 13' 10"
Max Speed: 540 mph
Gross Weight: 11,000 lbs
Power Plant: Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W
Horsepower: 4,000+
Fuel Capacity: 180 gallons
Armament: none

Lewis Air Legends Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat "Rare Bear"

Lewis Air Legends, of San Antonio, Texas, is the owner of this famous Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat (BuNo 122629), which is available for airshows, flybys, film and is also a regular unlimited racer at the Reno National Championship Air Races.

The Rare Bear is a World War II era Grumman F8F Bearcat. It has been restored, substantially modified and equipped with a Wright R3350 engine producing in excess of 4000 horsepower. This has allowed the Rare Bear to establish the Closed Course World Speed Record (528.3 mph) and 3000 Meter Time-To-Climb Record (91.9 seconds).

The Rare Bear was discovered as a severely damaged wreck in 1969 by Lyle Shelton. It had been abandoned next to a runway in an Indiana cornfield after a crash in 1962. The once proud airplane had been stripped by parts hunters, so Shelton found a fuselage, wing center section, landing gear and a right wing panel, but little else.

The pieces were trucked to Orange County, and restoration began. Volunteers donated their time and expertise to the task of locating impossible-to-find Bearcat parts, including a Wright R3350 - 2700 horsepower engine. The first flight was made on September 13,1969 from Orange County to the Chino Airport. Just a week later, the Bearcat appeared in its first National Championship Reno Air Race - sporting its first name "Able Cat", where it finished a respectable 5th (356.4 mph), despite the lack of preparatory and flight test time.

Bitten by the air racing bug and with their sights set on future races, the crew knew hard work and modifications were in order to make the airplane a winner. This lengthy preparation was
rewarded in 1971 when the newly renamed "Phoenix I" tasted its first victory at Cape May, New Jersey, winning the event with a speed of 360.15 mph. The "Phoenix I" then went on to Reno that September to place 2nd, finishing only .32 seconds behind the winner.

In February of 1972 the airplane challenged and broke the long standing Time-to-Climb record by ascending 3,000 meters in a mere 91.9 seconds. 1974 - 1975 brought further wins in Miami, Mojave and Reno. With the plane grounded from 1976 through 1979, Lyle Shelton managed and directed the Mojave Air Races. In 1980, the Bearcat was brought out of the hanger, dusted off, and renamed for the last time. The name chosen was "Rare Bear", and what a rare commodity she is. The next few years proved to be frustrating. Much of the restoration work had to be done without the funding necessary to cover the costs of repairs and refurbishing. In order for Rare Bear to be competitive, a major sponsor had to be found.

This was accomplished in 1986. Wichita Air services provided the support for a thorough overhaul of the aircraft, hired a crew chief and secured a hanger for the team. Every restorable piece of the Bearcat was returned to its original condition. Those not available were individually manufactured and retrofitted. The extensive rebuilding project was completed in 1987, and it paid off as the Rare Bear flew the 3rd fastest qualifying time (452.90 mph) at Reno that September.

The winning tradition began in 1988 when the Rare Bear and her dedicated crew won both the Hamilton Air Races and the National Championships at Reno, where new qualifying and championship records were set. With victory fresh in their minds, the team never looked back. Lyle Shelton and his crew set their sights on capturing the 3Km World Speed Record for propeller driven aircraft - then 499.018 mph. Could the elusive 500 mph barrier be broken? A site for the challenge was scouted, and Las Vegas, New Mexico was selected for its high altitude and desert air. On Monday, August 21, 1989 the Rare Bear faced the challenge, sprinting the four legs of the course at an average speed of 528.33 mph - shattering the previous record by almost 30 mph! In September 1989 the Rare Bear (now hailed as "The fastest propeller driven aircraft in the world"), returned as defending champion to Reno. "Could the Rare Bear be beaten?" asked the headlines. The answer was a roaring "NO!" as she took the Gold Medal and victory once again. 1990 brought another challenge for the Rare Bear as she was fitted with a new three-blade propeller, the result of removing one blade and repositioning the remaining three.

Undaunted, the airplane not only won the race, but established a new Unlimited speed record of 468.20 mph. In 1991 the results were even more impressive, with a Gold win at over 481 mph, yet another Unlimited race record.

The Rare Bear is the crowd favorite. The plane's absence following the engine failure in the 1992 Reno final has reduced the degree of competition in the race, as evidenced by the lower winning speeds since 1995.

In 2006, the Rare Bear was purchased by Rod Lewis and has undergone a complete overhaul and inspection at the "Bear Cave" at the Reno Stead Airport, Reno, Nevada. At the 2007 Reno National Championship Air Races, John Penney flew "Rare Bear" to a first place finish in the Unlimited Class Gold Race on Sunday afternoon at a speed of 478.394 mph.

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