Heroes abound, while initial races featured international flavor
By ANITA C. INFANTE
By now, news of the Sept. 16 crash at the Reno National Championship Air Races has made its way across the country and through the international media.
The flurries of reports, video and photographs from the scene have resulted in off-the-cuff opinions and speculation as to the possible causes. Even now, as the number of front page headlines decrease, the stark reality is that, for the first time in the 48-year history of the Reno Air Races, spectators lost their lives, in addition to an accomplished race pilot. For those in the air race community, whether associated with a team, as a volunteer, a local area service or supporter in the stands, this was a devastating event.
With the widespread coverage the crash has received, it would seem that there is little more to be said, but those who were on site working behind the scenes should be noted. The local emergency rescue teams on standby at the airport were at the scene immediately. The site was secured and treatment areas designated within a matter of minutes. A former chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center happened to be in the stands and rushed to help. He commented that the emergency medical team was extremely well trained and staged one of the best responses that he has ever witnessed, particularly having the proper equipment on hand and plentiful supplies. A normally animated race announcer calmly directed people away from the scene and out of the stands to designated meeting places or off the airport. Security volunteers began clearing the way for ambulance traffic. Private helicopters on the airport were gassed and made available for critical transport to the local hospital. It was reported that all of the injured were treated and/or transported within an hour of the incident. These people may never be personally thanked, but they should be aware of how tremendously important their help was to the overall effort.
The accident took place during the final Heat Race on Friday. It was the first time the Unlimited Gold Racers had appeared on the course since qualifying earlier in the week. With the cancellation of last year’s final Unlimited Gold Race, due to high winds, enthusiasm for this race was high. Steven Hinton in “Strega” was posturing for his third championship after setting a new qualifying record of 499.160 mph. Will Whiteside in “Voodoo” and Stewart Dawson in “Rare Bear” qualified second and third. Hoot Gibson in “September Fury” blew an engine just after qualifying in fourth place, paving the way for Jimmy Leeward in “Galloping Ghost” to move into that position.
After the first couple of laps in the race, Leeward had just maneuvered “Galloping Ghost” in front of “Rare Bear” when his aircraft pulled up as if trying to gain altitude to leave the race course, then it suddenly nosed-over, apparently out of control, causing the tragic crash.
The airport was then closed for the investigation and further racing was canceled, but prior to Friday’s incident, race week had progressed much as usual. There was even an international flavor to this year’s competition with teams from France, Austria and Canada.
Heat Races began on Wednesday afternoon with Gold Heats in the Formula One and Biplane Classes staged on both Thursday and Friday. Based on the Friday results, Steve Senegal in “Endeavor” was set to win his third championship. In Biplanes, Tom Aberle in “Phantom” was well in front of the field, winning both races. Maintaining first position would have earned Aberle his eighth championship trophy.
The Sport Class was restructured this year, making it more competitive. Regulations similar to the previous Super Sport rules were adopted. During Gold Heat Races on Thursday and Friday, the top contenders changed positions. In Thursday’s race Mike Dacey, in second place, lost power after takeoff and his Questair Venture landed hard. He was able to walk away from the aircraft, but was hospitalized with five cracked vertebrae and four broken ribs. (At last report he was recovering well.) During Friday’s race, the leader, Jeff LaVelle in his Glasair III, pulled out of the race as a precaution to check a possible problem. This gave John Parker the win in his Thunder Mustang.
The T-6 Gold Heat was Thursday with the qualifying positions changing by race’s end. John Zayac in “McDonald Racer” qualified in first but fell to a third place finish at 230.712 mph. Nick Macy traded third place for a second place finish for “Six-Cat” at 231.382 mph, and Dennis Buehn, last year’s champion, posted a speed of 235.389 mph in “Midnight Miss III” to clinch first.
The Jet Class had 16 contenders this year. Mike Mangold managed to stay in front in his L-29 after Thursday’s Gold Heat Race with Rick Vandam in second flying an L-39 and Phil Fogg’s L-39 placing third. Friday’s Heat Race was just prior to the Unlimited Gold Race and those official results were not available.
The future of the Reno Air Races remains in question. Whenever there is an accident of this magnitude, varying opinions are expressed and a full review is mandated. The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) is now in control of the investigation. At the first press briefing Saturday, Sept. 17, officials reported that nine people had died, including the pilot, Jimmy Leeward; that 17 were still being treated; and that 24 had been treated and released. The death toll is currently listed at 11.
In the final NTSB press briefing on Sunday, Sept. 18, officials said the wreckage recovery had been completed and that all aspects of the incident — human, equipment and environmental — would be thoroughly investigated. Review will also include possible information from a camera and recording system onboard the aircraft that sent telemetry data to the ground crew, as well as multiple private photos and video of the aircraft up to impact that are also available. Initial reports point to the failure of a trim tab on Leeward’s P-51 after he encountered turbulence in the wake of other aircraft.
Depending on the findings, the NTSB can recommend additional safety procedures to the FAA. In 1972 the NTSB recommended that the Reno race courses be moved farther from the spectators.
NTSB officials noted it could take six to nine months for a final determination to be made and released to the public.
How you can help
Think Kindness, a Nevada non-profit organization, has started a fund for the victims and family members affected by the tragic accident. All proceeds from the Think Kindness Family Assistance Fund will go directly to supporting victims of the accident and their families.
To make a contribution, visit any local Wells Fargo bank and reference routing number 582500507 and account number 3854301920. Donations can also be mailed to Think Kindness at 522 Lander Street, Reno, Nev., 89509 or made online at ThinkKindness.org. All donations are eligible for a tax deduction.
For more information: AirRace.org