An anonymous air race fan asks: As an air racer yourself, do you agree with the decision at the 2023 Reno Air Races to cancel the rest of the races after the tragic crash following the T-6 Gold race?
For me, the Final Flag started with a car.
That’s because, months ago, when I read that Reno had pulled the plug on hosting the National Championship Air Races, the very first thing I did was rent a car. I figured they’d go first. Then I started hunting for lodging.
Mind you, I hadn’t even planned on going this year. Still, on the day tickets went on sale, I was at my computer hours early, finger hovering over the keyboard like with eBay auctions of old. At the very first second that it was possible to buy tickets, I tried, but so did everyone else, and the Reno Air Racing Association’s computers crashed.
Well, crap. That was a bad choice of words, given what would happen later.
But, in hindsight, that wasn’t the only omen for me. In the flight-planning lounge in our house we have a large taxiway-blue LED countdown timer that can tick off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds to any event I set it for. We originally got it for countdowns to the next Sport Air Racing League air races back when I was racing.
Next to the timer is a small whiteboard that said: Countdown to _________. I wrote in “Reno” and set the timer.
The races have been hosted by that city for so many decades that if you tell anyone in aviation that you are going to Reno in the fall, they know you are going to the National Championship Air Races.
Anyway, about a week before the race, as I was pouring my coffee to start my day there was a loud crash… uh… a loud smacking, thumping, tinkling, crunching noise from the flight lounge. The whiteboard, securely stuck on the wall with double-sticky tape for years, had fallen off and bounced off the countertop below, scattering various trinkets that had been sitting there minding their own business.
I took it as an ominous omen of the final ending of air racing as we know it.
Sure, Reno officials are aiming to find a new home for the air races, and I hope they do.
But it’s not going to be easy. They need an airport located next to nothing. An airport with at least two runways, a ton of hangar and ramp space, all near somewhere with appropriate hotel capacity, that’s easy to get to by commercial air. Then they have to convince the local community to invest in building grandstands, and finally they’d have to convince the FAA to give its blessing to a whole new venue for an event that the agency isn’t really a fan of.
So even before the plunge of the whiteboard, I figured the final flag at the Unlimited Gold would be the final flag on the National Air Races. That’s why I felt compelled to go — to be there for the close of the final chapter in a long history. And I wasn’t alone.
When I got there, Reno/Stead Airport (KRTS) was packed with people. Oh my gosh, we probably haven’t seen crowds like this since the air races of the 1930s.
Before I got there, I wondered what the overall tenor would be. Would the mood be somber? Nope. It was the typical upbeat party atmosphere you’d expect at a major sporting event. That is, until the crash.
Of course, I missed it, as did most of the other spectators.
It was Sunday afternoon, and the final Gold T-6 race had just finished. Personally, I love the T-6 races because the airplanes are more closely matched than in some of the other classes, giving spectators a tight pack of airplanes to cheer on.
The Bronze race earlier in the day was a real squeaker, with “Miss Ellaneous” trumping “Vicarious” by 0.064th of a second. And it wasn’t just the leaders. Third and fourth places were separated by just over a 10th of a second. Now, that’s racing.
The T-6 Gold Race wasn’t that close, but was still an enjoyable heat.
As the planes were recovering, there was a break in action. Next on the docket was the Silver Unlimited race. The announcer suggested that if you needed a snack or a drink, this was a good time to get it.
I unfolded my paper schedule — I don’t get good cell service at Reno/Stead — and studied it. Still to come for the day was Sport Silver, then the final Jet Race, the Sport Gold, then finally the Unlimited Gold… and then it would be all over.
One drink wouldn’t cover it, so it seemed like a good time to get a second-to-the-last Calimocho, a Spanish cocktail of red wine and cola that just goes well with an air race.
When I came back from the Checkered Flag Club bar with my drink, at about a quarter after two in the afternoon, everyone was staring down range to the left. They had seen the ambulances and fire trucks roll. No one around me had seen anything else, and with the new-since-I-was-last-there corporate chalets blocking the club’s view of the end of the runway and the final turns, it probably wasn’t possible to see anything else.
Next came an announcement that there had been an incident, but there were no details yet. Then for what seemed like forever, the announcer talked about, well, nothing. Urging folks not to overwhelm the cell bandwidth. Not to speculate. To wait for official word.
Official word was a long time in coming. Naturally, this led to speculation. And the longer the lack of official word dragged on, the grimmer the speculation became.
But when the news finally came — that it was two planes, not one — and that there were no survivors, the crowd was thunderstruck. Time froze. A thousand conversations ceased. The massive river of people moving in and out of the pits halted.
And then we were told the Class Presidents would make the decision as to whether to race or stand down, which — much later — they did. My watch read 4:08 when the races went from suspended to canceled.
It was over for the day. Over for the season. Over for Reno. And perhaps — and only time will tell — over forever.
It was not the final flag any of us expected. The mood was largely shocked-neutral. There were a few tears, and a few cat-calls that I couldn’t quite make out.
The Right Decision?
So that’s what happened. Did the Class Presidents make the right decision?
Your question is not as simple as you might think. They had to balance a number of things, including what was best for the racers, what was best for their fans, what was best for the sport, what was best for the possible future of the National Air Races, what was best for public relations, and what was best to respect their fallen comrades.
These factors overlap and dovetail — but they do not mesh, making the decision-making process a complex balancing act.
And on top of that difficult metric was the fact that it was the final Reno.
So to answer your question, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the decision-makers and consider all of those factors, starting with the racers.
They came to race. They’d invested a lot of time and money to do it. And if you cancel what might be the last-ever air race, you’ll never really know who the ultimate King (or Queen) of Speed is.
And there’s a ton of precedent for not canceling races because of a crash — a long tradition of “the race must go on.”
In his book The Flight of the Mew Gull, Alex Henshaw relates the tale of the Isle of Man race in 1937. Being a British race, the airplanes were flagged off via handicap so they would all arrive at the final pylon at the same time. The airplane ahead of Henshaw, flown by Racer Sid Sparks, turned too sharply on to the course right after takeoff, G-stalled, and crashed into a house.
“We were horrified to see it plunge into the roof with a dull crunch,” wrote Henshaw, “and in the next second explode into an enormous pillar of smoke and flames. There was deathly silence on the starting line, broken only by the fierce crackle of the fire, and then by the clanging bells of the fire tenders as they rushed to the scene. There was nothing to say, it was now my turn to start up.”
He took off, and “used the smoking pyre of Sparks and his passenger as a turning point.”
Of course, even a hardcore racer like Henshaw admitted that when he was flagged off, “I put my thumb up and opened the throttle with a reassuring look I did not feel.”
So in terms of what is best for the racers, the leadership also needs to think about how the crash might affect the racers emotionally and, in turn, how that might impact their flying safety.
Because, God forbid, you keep racing and have another incident, there’s hell to pay in terms of lawyers, public opinion, and all the rest.
And, again, when it comes to precedent, in a flip-flop from historical tradition, last year’s Reno race was canceled following a fiery crash in the Jet Gold race.
Next, moving on to the fans. They too have invested a lot of time and money to come and watch the races and you don’t want to disappoint them.
How do you think Super Bowl fans would react to the match being canceled at the final down because a player was killed?
Again, I’m sure that this metric was impacted by the fact that this was the final Reno. I’m sure the pressure to continue was greater this year than if it had been a “normal” year.
And, after all, if any particular spectator felt continuing the races was the wrong thing to do, they could leave early and beat the traffic jam.
For those who want to see the races finish, shouldn’t they have the option?
In terms of what is best for the sport, that’s a complex metric. If you race despite tragedy, what does that say about your sport? Do you risk looking blood-thirsty?
Back in the day, when airplanes crashed at air races and air shows, the crowd would rush the field for souvenir pieces before the pilot had been either rescued or recovered, but that’s not the world we live in now. Perhaps. More on that in a moment.
The flip side of that coin, of course, is that if you start canceling races, people stop coming. This isn’t easy math.
Of course, as to what’s best for the future of the Reno Air Races, ending on a high note rather than a low note is best for the future, but dove-tailing into public reactions, shooting for a high note by deciding that the show must go on could backfire with public opinion and create a double low note.
Lastly, what would the fallen racers have wanted?
Disclaimer: I did not know either gentleman, so what I’m about to say is based on my own feelings as a racer, and my observations of my peers, but I believe they would have wanted the races to finish.
As air racers, I believe that they would not have wanted any race canceled because of what happened to them, much less the final races.
Heck, I once raced with a guy who didn’t call a Mayday when his prop flew off his airplane because he knew that if he did, under our League rules, the race would be canceled. Instead, he radioed that he had a “little problem” and landed off airport.
It’s just the way a lot of us are. We also raced following a fatality during a practice, because that’s just the way racing had always been. We so love our sport, that we wouldn’t want it stopped because of us.
Now, their families might not feel the same way.
I read somewhere that at least one of the classes put the question to a vote of the members, and that the vote was not unanimous. That doesn’t surprise me, given all the overlapping and competing factors. If I had been one of the racers, I would have been among those voting to keep racing.
On the other hand, if I had been one of the Class Presidents, I would have voted to cancel.
And that’s because from the narrow racer perspective, it’s all about the race. But from the broader perspective of safety, fans, public perception, liability, etc., the “bigger” issues and risks outweigh the desire of the pilot.
So to answer your question, yeah, I think that — when balancing everything — they did make the right call.
Canceling the remaining races was probably the right thing for many (but not all) of the racers.
And while canceling was probably the wrong thing for most (but not all) the fans, I think canceling was in the best interest of the sport, which exists in a public sphere and needs corporate sponsorship, which is sensitive to public opinion.
And in today’s hyper-sensitive and immature society, I think canceling was the only “politically correct” call to make from a public relations standpoint.
As to what was best for the future of the National Air Races, that’s a wash in my mind. It ends on a sour note for the Reno Air Racing Association either way.
Canceling will likely cause some community leaders to lose interest in being the new host. Had the show gone on, possible public backlash would likely have caused other community leaders to lose interest as well.
Lastly, while I do not believe canceling was the right thing to do to honor their fallen comrades, I conceded that it could very well be the right thing to do to honor their families — and really, that’s more important.
Once the races were canceled, we left the grandstands and went back to the Clubhouse to watch the crowds file out. We switched from Calimochos to straight up bourbon to ring out an era, toast the past, and drink to the unknown future.
The theme of this year’s race was the “Final Flag at Reno.” All of us had expected it to be the waving of the checkered flag at the end of the Unlimited Gold race. But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t the checkered flag at the end of the T-6 race right before the crash, either.
The final flag at Reno was atop the grandstands, where for years, an impressive bank of alternating checkered flags and Stars and Stripes have fluttered in the wind during the races. As the fans filtered out, one checkered flag after another was pilfered by souvenir hunters until only one remained. Like a reversal of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, many hands reached up to tear it down.
For a few brief moments, only the American flags remained flying, then one by one, they fell to the mob as well.
After the final flag had fallen, the setting sun cast its final rays on the home pylon at Reno. It was over.