Tsunami was and still is the world’s fastest homebuilt race plane ever built. Dreamed up by Minnesota industrialist John R. Sandberg and designed by Lockheed engineer Bruce Boland, Tsunami was built to compete in Unlimited air racing and to capture the absolute world record for propeller driven aircraft.

  • First design concept meeting – August 1979
  • Design review and go-ahead – October 1979

Vital Statistics


  • Overall Span 27.5 Ft.
  • Airfoil – Modified NACA 63-212
  • Root Chord: 88” – Tip Chord: 40” – Aspect Ratio: 5.45:1 – Total Wing Area: 150 Sq. Ft.
  • Wing tanks (2) capacity – 120 Gal total


  • Overall Length 28.5 Ft.
  • Fuselage tanks (2) capacity 110 Gal total

Landing Gear


  • Wheel base 9 Ft.
  • Adapted Aerostar main landing gear
  • Learjet wheels & brakes
  • Wheel size 18 x 5.5


  • Adapted P-51 H gear
  • Wheel – solid rubber Grumman S2 F tail bumper

Power Plant

  • Rolls Royce Merlin
  • Two Stage
  • Horsepower 2500 at 3200 RPM and 100 in. manifold pressure


  • Empty 5,600 lbs.
  • Full 7,200 lbs.

Flight Test

  • First flight – August 17, 1986 in Chino, California
  • Pilot – Steve Hinton
  • Length of flight – 20 minutes

Built From Scratch Except For

  • Engine (Rolls Royce Merlin)
  • Engine Mount (modified P51)
  • Spinner (P51H)
  • Prop (T28 blades)
  • Gear (Aerostar)
  • Brakes & Wheels (Learjet)
  • Tail Gear (P51H)
  • Misc. Pumps & Instruments

Tsunami Timeline

August 1979

An agreement was reached between Bruce Boland and John R. Sandberg during the Red Baron Speed Record Run at Tonopah, Nevada to construct the first homebuilt Unlimited air racer since 1939.


Construction began on Tsunami.


Construction progresses through various stages. Engineering changes abound. Virtually all of the parts were manufactured by Bruce Boland, Ray Poe and Tom Emery in Sun Valley, California.

May 1986

The parts for Tsunami were moved to Steve Hinton’s Fighter Rebuilders shop in Chino, California, for final assembly and testing. The Fighter Rebuilders Support team worked around the clock in order to get Tsunami ready for the 1986 Reno Air Races.


Throughout the construction of Tsunami a team at J.R.S. Enterprises (a WWII aircraft engine overhaul shop owned by John R. Sandberg) was hard at work building and testing what would eventually be Tsunamis Rolls Royce Merlin engine. The engine was test flown in Sandberg’s racing P-51 Mustang named Tipsy Too. The testing began with a single stage Merlin, but as race speeds increased at Reno, the need for more power also increased and it was decided to change to a 2 stage Merlin in 1984 with continued development.

The final engine design consisted of:

  • 7 Main Core and Blower
  • 500 Reduction Gear Assembly
  • 724 Head & Banks
  • Blower Turned Upside Down in order to provide down draft to the carburetor
  • A custom radiator and oil cooler
  • Anti-detonation injection (ADI)

The engine was capable of producing around 3,000 hp using high octane fuel and was eventually increased to 3,800 hp towards the end of the program.

August 17, 1986

The first flight of Tsunami was on August 17, 1986 with Steve Hinton at the controls. Initial test flights showed Tsunami reaching speeds of over 500 mph making the racer the fastest propeller driven homebuilt aircraft in the world.

September 1986

Tsunami joins the other “Heavy Metals” at the Reno Air Races.

Reno 1986

Tsunami experiences electrical problems. I/E Generator. In Sunday’s Gold Race electrical power fails and A.D.I. flow stops. Engine detonates and Tsunami has to land.


Development continues. Electrical problems resolved. Intermittent oil heating problems rear their head.

July/August 1987

Tsunami makes its first public appearance since Reno 1986 at Oshkosh. All systems are go with no problems. While at the Oshkosh Air Show, Tsunami was entered into the Homebuilt judging competition. Tsunami was proud to fly back to Chino, CA, after being selected for the Homebuilt Custom award.

Reno Air Races, 1987

Tsunami qualifies at 465 mph. Oil heating problems again show up. On Saturday’s race while running a close 3rd, Steve Hinton pulls out for a precautionary landing due to high oil temperatures. The right landing gear collapses shortly after touchdown. Substantial damage resulted to a complete rebuild in Crystal, MN.


Tsunami was rebuilt in Minneapolis, MN, with extensive re-design and rework.

Reno Air Races, 1988

Tsunami qualified with a race speed of 470.899. (3.73 seconds behind the top qualifier Rare Bear). In Saturday’s heat, Tsunami won the heat with an average speed of 462.218 mph. This was a new race speed record for Reno. In Sunday’s race Tsunami placed third behind Rare Bear and Dreadnought.


Tsunami was back in Chino, California getting ready for the World Speed Record attempt in September of 1989.

In June of 1989 aviation newsletter, Speed, Props & Pylons (SPP) had the opportunity to interview John R. Sandberg (JRS) in regards to the speed record attempt:

(SPP) Why did you decide to go for the speed record?

(JRS) I have been dreaming of this all my life. I guess you would say it has been a “Vision” of mine. Also, I want the public to acknowledge that “YES” a private individual, with a small group of dedicated people, can build such an airplane with limited funds and make a “Dream come True”. The other item I would like for the public to note is that a private pilot (which is my current rating) coupled with my age factor (57 years old) can still achieve those “VISIONS” which mean so much.

(SPP) Now that you have made your decision that you are going for the Speed Record, what are the next steps you must do to accomplish this?

(JRS) The first step is to scope out the location that meets all of the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale) regulations, as well as, several of “Mother Natures” factors i.e.: best weather, winds, humidity, etc.

The next step is you make an application to the FAI for a certain time period that does close out anyone else in the world for those three months in this classification. After you receive your application, you then finalize the deal with the city that you will be doing the speed record in.

You must obtain an FAA Low Waiver authorization for this time period and the location that has been approved.

For your own personal information to make your “BEST” time frame decision you will want the best weather information, wind information, humidity information etc. And lastly, you need timing authorities from the FAI and the local Fire Department involved. I will also have 4 parked airplanes at each end of the course making sure I stay within the parameters as well as a helicopter for the safety measures.

(SPP) Approximately how much money is involved?

(JRS) Approximately $50,000 – 75,000 to do the Speed Record.


Tsunami receives additional modifications:

  • The tail has been changed to achieve a less sensitivity.
  • Manual overrides have been installed on all of the systems.
  • Electronic ignition.
  • Slight changes to the cooling system.

August/September 1989

Tsunami and John R. Sandberg arrive at Wendover, UT, for the 3 km Speed Record attempt.

September 5, 1989

The first test flight for Tsunami/JRS on the course went great. The speeds were in excess of over 500 M.P.H. There was however a slight water leak on Tsunami that needed to be repaired prior to Wednesday’s attempt.

September 6, 1989

Wednesday morning JRS started Tsunami and took off, but it was short lived. Something did not feel right. A slight minor problem had shown up that was taken care of immediately. One hour later Tsunami and JRS took off again. The attempt was on. Two runs were made when Steve Hinton radioed JRS stating “Abort the attempt. Possible oil breathing problems.” Two cracked pistons definitely were a problem. The crew worked all night to change the two cracked pistons.

September 7, 1989

Thursday Tsunami and JRS started up and rolled out for takeoff. He aborted two take offs and taxied back into the pit because he smelt fuel in the cockpit. It turned out to be the right choice, one of the crew members had accidently filled the water tank with fuel and if he would have turned on the ADI it would have sprayed all over the hot radiator and potentially burst into flames. It was decided to extend the waiver thru Friday September 8, 1989.

The crew worked all morning changing out the ADI. By the afternoon, it was decided to do a practice run. It was a great run. But then the unthinkable happened. The left landing gear collapsed during landing causing the right to buckle shortly after. As Tsunami came to a stop on her belly everyone knew the record attempt was over.

I asked JRS what was going through his mind at that time and he responded, “right rudder, right stick, don’t tear the airplane apart.”

September 11, 1989

The crew had worked tirelessly day and night working on sheet metal repairs, fiberglass fabrication and an engine change. JRS flew back to MN to pick up 4 new blades as Gary Levitz used his Navajo to run for other parts. It was a huge undertaking, but three days later with Steve Hinton at the controls Tsunami landed in Reno.

September 11, 1989

Tsunami qualified in the Gold at a speed of 462.015 mph.

September 16, 1989

Tsunami finished in 5th place in the Gold Unlimited with a race speed average of 385.754 M.P.H. The aircraft only finished 7 laps.

1989 – 1990

Tsunami was shipped to Darrell Skurichs shop in Colorado to have the wings moved back nine inches to improve the CG.

June 1990

Tsunami with Steve Hinton as the pilot won the Texas Air Races with an average speed of 420.730 M.P.H.

1989 – 1990

Changes to Tsunami:

  • Construction and refitting of a new vertical stabilizer and rudder built out of magnesium.
  • The horizontal stabilizer and elevator re-built out of magnesium.
  • Ailerons have been reduced in length giving better feel and control at speed.
  • Moved the wing aft 9” for better stability.
  • Wing angle of incident changed to ¾ degree.
  • The scoop has been completely redesigned allowing for better cooling.
  • Redesigned landing gear retraction system.
  • Oil system changed.
  • Radiator outlet and doors re-engineered for a smoother exit of hot air.
  • Tail wheel lowered allowing a better stance for take-off and landing.
  • Carburetor inlet scoop re-designed for better airflow to engine.
  • The original spray bar and ADI tanks have been replaced with rubber bladders.
  • The net result of all of these modifications is that Tsunami no longer has to carry heavy nose ballast to maintain the proper center of gravity.

August 1990

John Sandberg experienced landing gear failure in Tsunami the Sunday prior to Denver’s race weekend causing major damage to the wings, prop blades (two of the blades snapped out of the nose casing) and the tail section.

August 1990

Steve Hinton was involved in an accident while taking off in a Miles Atwood replica. The engine suddenly quit and Steve had to put the airplane into a field. With Steve in a body cast, John Sandberg said that he wouldn’t race the plane that year, but Hinton insisted that they find a replacement and the only pilot as good as Steve was Lockheed Skunkworks test pilot Skip Holm.

September 1990

When Skip showed up to Minnesota to start flight testing Tsunami he warned Sandberg that if anything was wrong with the plane that he would find it. On Tsunami’s first flight test Skip pushed her up over 500 mph and ripped the belly scoop right off the plane. That year Tsunami qualified with a race speed of 465.187 M.P.H. and took 2nd place on Sunday’s Gold Unlimited race with a speed of 462.999 mph

February 1991

JRS tested a new composite prop, which eventually suffered a catastrophic failure in the test cell.

June 1991

Sandberg and the crew install an electronic fuel injection system onto Tsunami’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine.

July 1991

Tsunami receives a new paint scheme.

September 1991

Though Tsunami finished third at the Reno Air Races, many believe it was the best unlimited race in history as the top three racers finished 3.47 seconds of each other with an average speed of 478 mph. This race still stands today as the fastest pylon race in history and the first time Reno had seen laps of over 500 mph.

September 25, 1991

John R. Sandberg, 59, dies in the crash of his Unlimited air racer. The accident occurred while John was ferrying Tsunami home from the 1991 Reno Air Races to Minneapolis, MN, he was on final approach to Pierre, SD for a scheduled refueling stop when the racer suddenly rolled over onto its back and dove into the ground. Upon further investigation, it was believed that the flap actuation system failed, causing one flap to retract. This would be the end of the Tsunami program for close to 20 years.

November, 2009

Sharon Sandberg (daughter of John Sandberg) and John R. Sandberg Bjornstad (grandson of John Sandberg) begin discussions of what it would take to resurrect the racer.

January, 2010

A small group of volunteers remove Tsunami from her storage container and begin disassembling the aircraft.

July, 2010

The Tsunami project debuts at EAA’s AirVenture.

September, 2011

Without the proper team and lack of funding the project goes dormant.

October, 2013

John R. Sandberg’s family donates Tsunami to Flight Expo Inc. a local aviation 501c3 non-profit.

September, 2015

John Bjornstad, once again, begins construction on Tsunami.