Tsunami was designed for one thing and one thing only, to break records. Having the smallest sleekest airframe ever built around a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, Tsunami can reach speeds well over 500 mph.

Tsunami Concept Drawing

Tsunami Concept Drawing

            “What if you took a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and built the smallest, lightest and sleekest airframe around it you could possibly dream up…?”  -  Jack Cox Sport Aviation December 1986

The idea behind Tsunami was to build such a small, light and streamline airframe that an essentially stock Rolls-Royce Merlin engine could be used to reach the desired performance levels – rather than a highly modified, high stressed and short lived engine used in the typical P-51 Mustang racer. Tsunami was to be used to race in the Unlimited class at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, NV and to break the 3 km world speed record for propeller driven aircraft of 528.33 mph set in 1989 by Lyle Shelton in his highly modified Grumman F8F Bearcat Rare Bear and the seaplane record of 440.681 mph set in 1934 by Italian Francesco Agello in a Macchi-Castoldi MC-72. An experienced pilot would race the airplane but owner John Sandberg would try for the absolute speed records. Although highly experienced, John only held a Private pilot’s license and wanted the world’s speed record to be held by a “non-professional” pilot.


John R. Sandberg

John R. Sandberg was an American entrepreneur, industrialist, air-racer and philanthropist. Born and raised in Minnesota, Sandberg was well known throughout the aviation industry for his support and generosity to museums and aviation organizations all over the world. He owned a precision machine shop and an aircraft engine overhaul shop that specialized in Pratt and Whitney radial engines along with Rolls-Royce V-12 power-plants.


In the early 1970’s John owned a highly modified P-63 King Cobra named Tipsy Miss, which he had invested many hours and a lot of money trying to make it competitive at Reno with little success. Ready to move onto a new project, John had begun toying with an idea of building a completely original designed racer to compete with the highly modified WWII fighters. After talks for many years with Bruce Boland, a Lockheed Martin aerodynamicist and structures engineer and veteran designer of previous unlimited air racers, they reached the conclusion that an aerodynamically efficient design coupled with less than destructive power could produce a world-beating aircraft. These discussions gelled during the speed record runs of the Red Baron P-51 at Tonopah, NV, in August 1979. Red Baron pilot Steve Hinton had just captured a new record of 499 mph when John gave Bruce the go ahead.


“Design and build the airframe and I’ll build and test the Merlin.”
                                    –  John R. Sandberg


After seven long years and Steve Hinton at the controls Tsunami took to the skies on August 17, 1986. It was the first time since 1935 when Howard Hughes built the H-1 that a private individual had designed, built and flew an amateur-built Unlimited racing aircraft.


Like many new concepts Tsunami was plagued with problems over its initial few years.  Having competed in the Reno air races every year from its conception in 1986, it wasn’t until 1990 that Tsunami would take the Gold. In 1991, Tsunami was faster than ever, with lap speeds just over 500 mph she was finally showing the world her true potential. However while ferrying the aircraft home on Wednesday September 25, 1991, Tsunami experienced a catastrophic mechanical failure while on approach to Pierre, SD and violently rolled over and dove into the bluff just short of the runway killing its owner John R. Sandberg instantly and destroying the aircraft.

Skip Holm talking about who he is, and his experience with Tsunami.




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