ISA Sign Expo 2014 Recap!

ISA Sign Expo 2014 in Orlando has come and gone, and was a great experience! In case you weren’t able to make it, here are some pictures from the show:

IMG_20140425_151725_242Jim and Jason of Synergy Sign stand at the Coastal Enterprises booth, in front of their project we featured!

IMG_20140424_100951_262Kellie Miller, Executive Account Manager at Coastal Enterprises.

IMG_1910Brad Burnett, Sales & Marketing Associate at Coastal Enterprises




Races in The Sky: The Jon Sharp Story

Part 2 of 2

Known as the “winningest pilot in the history of air racing,” Jon Sharp is a legend known for building fast planes and pushing them to the limit. Last week we wrote about Jon and his career working at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, this time we’re jumping in the cockpit with him to examine his career in air racing.


It’s hard to believe, but Jon fell into air racing almost entirely by accident. When he purchased his first airplane in 1978, a Cassutt Special named “Bilbo” from Dave Bice, his main interest was flying it around.

cassutt_tomCassutt Special designer Captain Tom Cassutt with the “Cassutt #1” in 1954.

Not long after buying the plane came a call that would change both Jon and air racing forever. Bob Downey, an old-time air-racing pilot known as the “Ole Tiger” and an air racing legend in his own right, called his friend Dave Bice to ask him to participate in an upcoming air race in Mexicali, Mexico. When Dave mentioned he had sold the plane to Jon, Bob called him next – and it’s a pretty easy guess how that call ended.


Preparation for that first race in Mexicali was no easy task and took about a month. Jon and his fledgling team worked long hours building a trailer and readying the aircraft. In addition to the solid support of his wife Patricia (which would continue throughout his racing career), Jon also benefitted with help from friend and former work colleague (from George Applebay’s sailplane shop) Steve Hill, who would function as his crew chief in Mexicali.

Race day came up pretty quick, and I asked Jon how he felt, sitting in the cockpit of Bilbo in his final moments before takeoff:

“Sitting on that runway with the race about to start, and six other planes with far-more experienced pilots right next to me, I was absolutely petrified. My nerves were completely shot and stayed that way until the engine started. I ended up placing dead last on that first race, mainly due to the typical rookie mistake of ballooning up in the turns. That was the first air race I ever saw, and it was from the cockpit.”

“I finished the race and talked with Bob (Downey), who had been watching the race from below and he gave me some pointers on how to stop that. Bob also let me use his personal metal prop so I could switch out the wooden one I was using. That wooden prop would spin at maybe 2,900 or 3,000 RPM’s max., but the metal prop spun around 3,700 or 3,800 RPM, which was a huge improvement. With help from Bob, there were two more races that weekend where I did much better.” 

16 Bob DowneyBob Downey

From the time he competed in that first race, Jon was hooked.

“As soon as I participated in that first race I was hooked and wanted to get better. I got home from the races and hadn’t been there two hours before I ordered my own metal prop. And I watched for that UPS truck for a solid month before it got there,” remembers Jon.

Jon was mentored by Bob for that race, and many more to come.

“Bob Downey acted as a sort of pilot instructor towards me. We would go over the race route, and many times Bob was already familiar with the track, so he would provide suggestions about the race from start to finish, different turns etc.,” says Sharp.

Jon originally raced in the Formula 1 race class, which changed to International Formula 1 (or IF1) in 1981 after a merger with the International Formula Midget class. As his racing skills increased, Jon started gaining sponsors, one of the first being Aeromag. In recognition of this, he changed the named of his plane from “Bilbo” to “Aero Magic.”

Aero Magic flew from 1981 until 1989, performing well, with competition wins in 1982 and 1986. He also won the Fastest Qualifier Trophy at Reno twice. Jon married his wife Patricia in 1989 and decided to move to California, putting air racing on the back burner for 8-10 months. Early in the year, he discovered that the wing on Aero Magic, while top-of-the-line when originally purchased, was far from the best available in 1990. After contemplating several ideas such as building a composite wing for Aero Magic, he ended up deciding to start with a clean sheet of paper and build a new airplane.

The new plane was to be christened “Nemesis”, and would take over a year to build. Nemesis weighed in at 520 lbs. and was powered by a blueprinted Continental 0-200, eventually producing well over 100hp and RPM’s over 4,000 (manufacturers redline was 2,750).

Jon describes the tooling process: “the parts for Nemesis were made from with a combination of HDU and polystyrene molds that were all hand carved with a wet bucket and brush hand-layup technique and cured in what we called the “Mojave-clave”, which is a 120 degree hanger in mid-summer Mojave, CA.”

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works teams up with Nemesis Air RacingNemesis next to the SR-71 Blackbird at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

The combination of Jon’s skill on the track coupled with the well-designed Nemesis resulted in an absolutely unstoppable duo. Nemesis made its debut in 1991 at the Reno Air Races. Upon seeing the plane, another 1F1 pilot, Bruce Bohannon said to Jon: “this plane is either going to be our nemesis or yours.” After watching a qualifying run, he told Jon, “I figured it out.”

Nemesis went on to win 47 of 50 races entered from 1991 – 1999. Two of the losses were the very first and second races, the first due to Jon hearing a noise he’d never heard before, and the second the result of prop testing. Throughout its 9-year career, Jon, Nemesis, and the Nemesis Air Racing Team would live their motto “Chase the Dream…Not the Competition”, while amassing 9 Gold Reno Championships, receiving the Fastest Qualifier Trophy 6 times and winning four Pulitzer Aviation Trophies.

Air racing is of course an inherently dangerous sport. I asked Jon what one of the most shocking things he saw was and he stated: “I saw a gentleman parachute out of his Corsair once in 1995 at a race in Phoenix. His plane caught fire, and he hit the fire bottles and it went out. Well, the fire came back and he was forced to step onto the wing and parachute out of the plane.”

“Throughout its entire racing career, Nemesis had but a single problem in its life. On my very last landing at Mojave, I got a flat tire as I was landing and almost skidded off the runway. After that, I made it safely to Oshkosh, WI, for the official Nemesis retirement at the EAA Oshkosh AirVenture before it went to the Smithsonian. After retirement, I found myself in the world of gambling.” says Jon.

In 2000 Patricia, while at the hangar working, received a phone call asking if they would be ok with housing Nemesis in the Smithsonian, next to the Enola Gay, SR-71 Blackbird and the Space Shuttle Enterprise to be exact. Jon and Patricia of course agreed and donated Nemesis to the museum where it resides today. Nemesis has been described by the National Air and Space Museum as: “The most successful aircraft in air racing history.

800px-NASM_-_NemesisNemesis inside the National Air & Space Museum

After twenty years of racing, Jon sure as heck wasn’t done, and in 2000 started drawing and sketching designs for a completely new aircraft. After several iterations, the proposed designs were only offering gains of 2, 3 or 4 mph. 

“We weren’t interested in spending the money to build a plane that we weren’t even sure would be faster than what we already had. After careful thought, we decided to move up into the Sport racing class, which would allow us to use a larger engine and realize a larger speed gain. This plane would be called the NemesisNXT,” says Sharp.


Unfortunately, not long after Jon announced he was leaving IF1 and moving into the Sport-class, the rules were adjusted, requiring all Sport-class planes be kit airplanes, with a minimum of 5 kits sold. Forced to join the kit business or not compete, (Jon likens it to having the goalposts moved in a football game), he managed to get 5 deposits in five weeks on the NemesisNXT – despite the fact it wasn’t finished and had never been flown.

Jon’s friendship with Chuck Miller, President of Coastal Enterprises (manufacturers of Precision Board Plus polyurethane in Orange, CA), meant he was able to secure a donation of Precision Board for the tooling required to build NemesisNXT. The importance of this will be especially clear to anyone familiar with the costs associated with bringing an aircraft from concept to reality.

According to Jon, “We used Precision Board Plus PBLT-20 to make molds for the leading edge closeouts, the horizontal tail, production parts for the leading edges, interior components, the vertical tail, and as a mold for the 90 gallon gas tank. All of the molds were CNC machined, which resulted in our most accurate airframe ever produced. Precision Board, with its tight cell structure and ease of machinability enabled us to bring our first computer-designed  aircraft to life.”


Because all of the molds were machined so accurately, Jon’s Chief Aerodynamicist Daren Kimura was able to accurately predict performance and stability information. Jon’s team also produced a flight simulator for the NXT using open-source code and Jon was able to simulate races before even flying the plane.

The NemesisNXT debuted in May 2002 at the SAMPE convention in Long Beach, CA, weighing in at 1,200 lbs. empty, 2,200 lbs. loaded. It was powered by a Lycoming Thunderbolt TSIO-540-NXT engine, custom designed by Lycoming engineers working in conjunction with the Nemesis Air engineering team.

6991 Nemesis taxiPhoto Credit: Tim Adams Photography

Jon raced the NemesisNXT for the first time at the 2004 Reno Air Races, resulting in the most terrifying moment of his air racing career. “As I was landing the plane after a qualifying run, the landing gear collapsed, and the plane went down on its belly. I ended up skidding off the runway and into the dirt, but luckily nothing happened and I ended up ok,” says Jon.

The first two years racing NemesisNXT were rough, with technical difficulties hindering both the 2004 and 2005 Reno Air Races. The following year brought the Nemesis team their first of four consecutive Reno Sport / Super Sport Class championships. 2008 saw the NemesisNXT surpass the 400 MPH barrier reaching 409 MPH during a qualifying lap at Reno – an astounding achievement for a plane in the Sport class.

1361 Nemesis on rampPhoto credit: Tim Adams Photography

The next year, 2009, was Jon’s last year racing, and his most successful. The Reno Air Races that year saw him round up his career with an astounding “Record a Day, and 2 on Sunday” performance. On September 15th at the Reno Air Races, NemesisNXT set a new qualifying record of 412 MPH. This record was faster than the planes in the Unlimited class, over 32 planes including eight P-51 Mustangs and two P-40 Warhawk’s.

September 16th saw the NemesisNXT beat it’s own heat race from 2008 to a new record of 393 MPH.

September 17th saw the team beat the previous day’s heat race record, with a new race speed of 399 MPH.

September 18th, the team beat the previous day’s heat race record again with a top speed of 406 MPH!

September 19th, Jon’s final race, saw him absolutely dominate the class with a championship race record of 406 MPH, at the same time also winning a record 15th Reno National Championship to complete his career.

I asked Jon what his most memorable moments were in his air racing career and he said: “In the thirty years I competed in the air racing circuit, my most memorable moments are my very first race victory in 1982, the first victory with Nemesis in 1991, and the bookend with NemesisNXT in 2009.”

“What is my favorite part of air racing? The checkered flag! It’s a great feeling as you cross that line.”

-Jon Sharp

783726e687d9a4fdce440d77a6f4325cPhoto credit: Air Racer: Chasing the Dream

Please see additional information about Jon Sharp at

Jon Sharp and NemesisNXT have also been featured in Air Racer: Chasing the Dream, a documentary shot and directed by Christopher Webb.

This is a preview of Air Racer: Chasing the Dream



Life at Skunk Works Through The Eyes of Jon Sharp

Part 1 of 2

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 8.37.31 AMIt’s not everyday one gets to speak to air racing legend Jon Sharp. He’s so respected and well known in the air racing community that one of his planes is even housed in the Smithsonian next to the Space Shuttle Discovery and Enola Gay. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to interview him. Jon also owns Nemesis Air Racing and is a former Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Composites Engineer. While talking to me probably wasn’t as exciting as racing a plane across the finish line or putting the final touches on a top-secret government project, Jon was nice enough to give me a glimpse into these fascinating industries and his role in the rise of high density polyurethane as a tooling substrate.

When he was a kid, Jon raced tricycles, go karts, model cars, motorcycles – just about anything with wheels. His love for racing continued into his later years, and before long he started looking for a low-cost airplane he could purchase. In 1978 he purchased a race plane from a friend, which made him the proud owner of a Cassutt Special.

Jon was eventually approached by legendary air racing pilot Bob Downey, who taught him the finer points of air racing prior to his first race in Mexicali, Mexico. (Jon’s racing career is examined in detail in part 2 of this story) His love for planes, combined with his work making composite parts on projects such as the Applebay Sailplane’s Zuni glider, and the Miller JM-2 race plane familiarized him with composite tooling methods. This experience proved to be a priceless asset in landing a future position at Lockheed Martin.

300px-Aquila_02His hiring at Lockheed’s Austin, Texas location in 1983 made him the 500th employee at a location that would later employ up to 5,000. One of the first projects he worked on was the Lockheed MQM -105 “Aquila” kevlar composite UAV. He participated as right-seat pilot and flight engineer of a DeHavilland Otter, carrying the Aquila in a captive-carry position during simulated missions to verify the UAV’s communication and system links (sounds kind of like a pilot’s dream job if you ask me!).

In 1989, Jon and his wife Patricia moved to Burbank, CA, in order to be closer to Jon’s new position at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, which is a group within Lockheed Martin that works on highly secretive projects. Credits to Skunk Works include the infamous SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk.

Dark StarWhile many of the projects Jon was involved in are still classified, he was heavily involved in the now-declassified Lockheed Martin/Boeing RQ-3 Darkstar UAV program. An early precursor to modern day UAV’s, Darkstar was designed as a high-altitude endurance UAV with stealth technology. This project, with Jon’s leadership and dedicated team, was the first time high density polyurethane was used for tooling on a government contract job, a pioneering move for the tooling world of the early 1990’s. It helped to pave the way for the large amount of HDU seen today in the aerospace and composites industries.

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 8.52.57 AMJon shared his thoughts on what it meant to switch from the time-consuming tooling methods they were accustomed to, to high density urethane:

“90% of the tooling for Darkstar was made from 10lb and 20lb. HDU. It would have cost us roughly 30 times that amount to do the tooling with metal. Not only that, as soon as we discovered the numerous options we had for block configuration and sheet size, we never went back to bonding up railroad-tie size pieces of wood or buying chunks of metal like we did in the past,” he said.

Customization options, allowing for easier accommodation of design changes, also played a large role in high density polyurethane winning the hearts and minds of the aerospace tooling industry. He went on to say,

“Another major reason we were so drawn to HDU for tooling was the greater level of design flexibility that was suddenly available. We used to order our blocks several inches thicker than we needed them, which made the inevitable design changes much less of a headache. Could we have done that with metal? Absolutely not, we would have had to start all over again.” says Sharp. “The bottom line is, once high density urethane became available, we weren’t about to spend millions of dollars on tooling for a prototype, especially one that could be of limited life! The quality, consistency, and block configuration options of Precision Board cut labor time and cost down so drastically that we didn’t want to use anything else!”

Jon’s career at Lockheed Martin spanned an impressive 25 years, in departments ranging from the propulsion laboratory to advanced composites. He watched many of the most well-known aerospace projects of today use high density polyurethane as the soft tooling for prototype components. These include early F-35 and F-22 prototypes, along with the Boeing 737 ARTB (Advanced Radar Test Bed).

Part 2 of this story, which covers Jon’s air racing career with his competition-winning planes – one of which is housed in the Smithsonian next to the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Enola Gay can be seen here. Subscribe to our blog by Liking us on Facebook or Following us on Twitter!

In the meantime, you can also check out Jon’s website,, for more information and pictures.

See Precision Board in action on a CNC machine with this video of PBHT-60 on the router at ADM Works: