Tragedy at Reno 2011

I was fortunate enough to have the following article published in the November/December 2011 issue (#39) of Warbird Digest (www.warbirddigest.com). 

The National Championship Air Races 2011 was supposed to be a very exciting year for air racing but ended in tragedy. The stage was set for an incredible air race in what I call the “year of the woulds.” Would Steven Hinton, the current world champion join a handful of legendary race pilots who have won three championships in a row? Would this be Will Whiteside and Voodoo’s year to win? Would Rare Bear with Stewart Dawson at the controls put the Bear back in the winner’s circle? Or would one of the several well known racers, like the Sea Fury posse of Dreadnought, September Fury, Furias, or Precious Metal, the Griffon powered P-51 with counter rotating propellers, or the shaved scoop P-51 Galloping Ghost end Sunday’s race as the 2011 National Champion.

Steven Hinton would be the fourth pilot in air race history to win three national championships in a row, joining the ranks of Tiger Destefani in #7 Strega (1995, 1996, and 1997), Lyle Shelton #77 Rare Bear (1988 through 1991), and Darryl Greenamyer in a combination of #1 Greenamyer Bearcat, #1 Smirnoff, and #1 Conquest 1 (1965 through 1969). In the 2010 National Championship Air Race, Team Voodoo was poised to give Strega a serious run for her money. Would 2011 be Will Whiteside and the crew of Voodoo’s year to win their first national championship? Rare Bear’s last Reno win was in 2007 with John Penney at the controls. With a visit to the Breitling Gold and qualifying in the number three spot behind Strega and Voodoo in 2010, would 2011 be the year the legendary Bearcat would regain the championship? Or would one of several other strong contenders emerge from the shadows and claim the championship on Sunday’s Breitling Gold race. Would Dennis Sanders in #8 Dreadnought, Hoot Gibson in #232 September Fury, Matt Jackson in #15 Furias, Thom Richard in #38 Precious Metal, or would Jimmy Leeward in #177 Galloping Ghost take home the honors of Air Racing National Champion of 2011.

Tragically, on Friday, September 16th during the Unlimited Class Gold Heat (2A) The Galloping Ghost with Jimmy Leeward at the controls crashed into the box seat area in front of the grandstands. Not to take away from any team at Reno this year or their hard work, dedication, and the countless hours they spent getting their respective aircraft to Reno and seriously contend for the Breitling Gold trophy, the Galloping Ghost tragedy is unfortunately the story of Reno 2011. Perishing in the crash was veteran warbird pilot Leeward, who was a very well respected and experienced pilot. In addition, as of this writing, ten spectators were killed, and many others injured as a result of the plane’s impact.

I was on the ramp as the aircraft of the Gold 2A Heat Race were towed to the ramp. During the 2A Heat, I was one of several photographers that probably captured some of the last photos of Leeward and The Ghost before their fateful flight.  As I later looked at these photographs, I could see they depicted the camaraderie of the air race pilots and their ground crew. It is hard to find words that describe my feelings as I looked at these photos, knowing that within 20 minutes Jimmy Leeward and the Galloping Ghost would be gone forever.

Shortly before the race, ground crew and pilots made their way out to the ramp and their planes. First to walk out was Steven Hinton, followed by Jimmy Leeward, and then Will Whiteside each to their respective plane. Soon, Whiteside and Hinton were talking in front of Strega. Then Leeward walks over and the three race pilots begin talking and sharing some light hearted moments before the race. As I snapped away, I soon saw Tiger Destefani walking up. Before he got to the front of Strega, I could hear him yelling at Leeward, “Leeward, you stealing secrets?” This prompted Leeward to put his hands on his hips and bend down, taking a look down the center line of Strega, then giving Tiger a thumbs up! After a brief conversation between these four world class air race pilots at the nose of Strega, it was time to get ready to race. Leeward and Destefani walked off with Leeward’s arm around Tiger. They were soon approached by a video crew (mid ramp) for an impromptu interview before the race. The Gold 2A Heat Race would start setting the stage for the serious contenders of Sunday’s Breitling Gold Race.

One by one, first Strega, then Voodoo, followed by Rare Bear, Galloping Ghost, Sawbones, and finally Dreadnought taxied out. Who would have thought, that within ten minutes, all the excitement and energy of this heat race, as well as the entire National Championship Air Races 2011, would be radically altered.  As I watched the aircraft round pylon 8 and head towards the home pylon, I saw Strega out front with Voodoo nipping at Hinton’s heals. Third place was a battle with Leeward and his shaved scoop P-51 holding a small lead over Rare Bear. As the race planes rounded pylon 8 again, about to end their second lap, Hinton was still holding a lead over Whiteside. As Leeward came down the home stretch, I saw him pull up and the world I was seeing suddenly turned into slow motion.

Please remember that as I describe the following chain of events, these are my personal observations based upon my experiences as an aviation journalist, with a competent knowledge of aviation, and as a 26 year career police officer.  When I first saw Galloping Ghost pull up, my first thought was that Leeward had some type of on-board emergency. When a pilot has an emergency, they pull up and out of the way of the race aircraft and divert to the pre-designated emergency runway. Although not common, these in-flight emergencies are often declared during race week and are resolved without incident (#38 Precious Metal had declared one in the Heat Race prior to the Gold 2A race). As we now know this would not be the case for Jimmy Leeward and #177 Galloping Ghost.  Leeward pulled the Galloping Ghost up and at the top of the climb out (I estimate at approximately a 1,000 feet) rolled upside down, yawed right, and within a “nano-second” turn downward, which from my perspective was towards the grandstand area. Somewhere in these few seconds, I heard a definite change in the sound of the motor. Then suddenly, the world I was seeing suddenly turned into slow motion and within seconds, Jimmy Leeward piloting #177 Galloping Ghost impacted the grandstand area. The last thing I remember hearing was the change in the motor power setting, after that I didn’t hear the impact and the first thing I remember hearing was a Media Operations staff member telling me to get back to the Media Center.

Immediately after the crash, I made my way to the area near the grandstands to check on friends. As I walked through the crowd, I made several observations. The race announcers were doing an outstanding job at remaining calm and providing direction and guidance to a shocked and stunned crowd. As I made my way through the crowd, I was surprised, frankly, of their calm demeanor. I guess I half expected the crowd to be running like hell. The crowd was by no means emotionless, I saw facial expressions that accurately reflected the horror they experienced just a few minutes prior. Expressions of tears and blank looks and people on their cell phones letting loved ones know they were okay and recounting their story at 500 miles an hour.  Once I past the grandstands, I could see that the Galloping Ghost had hit the box seats in front of the grandstands. There I saw the vintage 1965 UH-1D Huey that had arrived on Wednesday to participate in the National Aviation Heritage Invitational (NAHI) competition, starting to take off.  I later discovered that the crew of the Huey, including the owners Chris Miller and Mike Haus and aircrew members pilot Tim Horrell and co-pilot Ray Murphy had taken it upon themselves to begin medavac operations for this mass casualty incident.

As with many tragedies, such as 9/11 or Katrina, heroes emerge and reach out to help total strangers. Whether it is a vintage helicopter conducting its first medavac mission in 40 years, a father protecting his son from the exploding debris, or a man ripping off his shirt to use as a tourniquet for an individual who had his leg severed, this is what makes this country the best country on the planet. In light of tragedy, there will always be a group of people that will run into the tragedy to help the stricken.  In addition to some race fans helping others, I was amazed how fast Law Enforcement and Emergency Medical personnel arrived. The Stead airport is about 15 miles from the city of Reno.  It seemed like a matter of minutes, although I know it was longer, when First Responders were onscene, treating the wounded and securing the accident scene.

As the aviation world mourns for Jimmy Leeward, prays for those killed and injured, consoles the families of the lost, and for those who witnessed this catastrophic event comes to grips with their own emotions, we wait to see what the future of air racing will be.

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