With only a handful of planes in the world still running a 28-cylinder R-4360 engine, Dennis Nobile, owner of Sun Air Parts in Valencia, a world-renowned supplier of vintage aircraft engines and parts, is proud to say he has every part available.
“We’re the largest parts dealer in the world and, actually, one of the last ones,” Nobile said. “There are a few people that have some stuff, but we have every part for this engine in stock.”
The R-4360 powered various notable aircraft, including the Spruce Goose, which has eight of these engines, and the B-50 Superfortress, which was an upgraded version of the B-29.
Nobile is also proud to say that this engine won his sponsored plane, Dreadnought, the Gold Unlimited Trophy at the 2019 National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, in September, flying at an average speed of 403.274 mph.
“It’s the fastest motorsport in the world, and everybody around the world goes there. We’ve been going there since the 80s,” Nobile said, adding that each year, they sponsor numerous aircraft in both the T-6 and unlimited categories, which run on their engines and parts. “We’ve probably won first 12 or 13 times, and second, probably more. Then in the T-6 class, (we win) every year.”
This was the 56th year of the Reno Air Races, which is one of the few remaining venues for the sport. Aircraft in the unlimited class consist primarily of World War II fighter planes, some modified, others stock, racing at speeds of 400-500 mph. Flying this fast takes a toll on the engines, as they weren’t made to fly that fast in the war, so planes need varying degrees of overhauls after each race, some needing entire engines rebuilt, Nobile said.
With rising costs associated not only with the upkeep of the planes but also the sport itself, the Reno Air Races are not quite as popular as they once were, and many of Nobile’s sponsored planes have not returned, but what Sun Air does at Reno is primarily for the love of air racing.
Sun Air Parts was created in Sun Valley in 1970, specializing in Pratt & Whitney piston engine parts and tools, filling the need for spare parts, tools and engines after Pratt & Whitney decided to stop support of their old engines.
“Most of these engines after the war were sent to Arizona to the scrapyard or the storage units, and then they started making crop dusters in the early 70s, using surplus World War I planes and World War II planes,” Nobile said.
When turbine engines became popular, they stopped building new airplanes with the old piston engines. “But there’s still 6,000 of them out there flying around the world, and they have to overhaul them every thousand hours of use, so that’s where we come in and we make all the parts that wear out.”
The company moved its operations to Valencia in 1990, and since then, has continued to supply Pratt & Whitney engine parts, stocking dozens of overhauled engines, hundreds of engine cores and thousands of parts acquired from various aircraft manufacturers worldwide over the years.
Their customers include engine overhaul shops from around the world, and their engines go into fire bombers, cropdusters, racer planes, restored planes and regional airliners among others.
June 6, 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings and the Battle of Normandy, and many returned for the international ceremony, including many of the airplanes flown 75 years ago.
“All those airplanes flew in Normandy … they were dropping the parachute guys for the 75th anniversary, every one of them had our engines on it,” Nobile said. “They had all kinds of airplanes from all around the world, but they only let nine fly, I think — they really did a pretty good inspection on them.”
Many of those planes had to fly all the way there and back, making various stops in order to complete the journey.
“Imagine being in the middle of the ocean with those 80-year-old engines,” Nobile added, chuckling. “And they all made it back.”