Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Did Not Go To Reno This Year

     I live a relatively quiet life and I am always surprised to see a news story which happens in a place I am familiar with, so I was a bit shocked and saddened to hear about the crash on Friday (9-16-2011) of Jimmy Leeward during the unlimited qualifying race at Reno.

Jimmy Leeward's name is familiar to anyone who spent much time at all at Reno; he has raced there regularly for many years. The plane he usually flew is named Cloud Dancer; Galloping Ghost, the plane that crashed, is a plane which he recently completed modifying.

Cloud Dancer: not the plane that crashed.
Leeward taxis to the start of the unlimited final race in 2006.

     It has been a few years since I last went to the Reno Air Races, but for a while, I was regularly travelling with my friend Jim to watch them each September.We would reunite each year with Doug, a long-time family friend of Jim's, and stay at the same hotel. Doug would graciously provide the seat tickets, and we would spend the weekend with him, watching the races, and being entertained by his stories as an engineer with McDonnell Douglas for more than 40 years.
     The air races are very busy, and there is an awful lot to see and do, but we would never miss the unlimited races each day; the unlimiteds were the big event with the fastest and most beautiful planes: mostly Hawker Sea Furies, Grumman F-8F Bearcats, and North American P-51s (In 2003, we watched as a plane named Dago Red, a P-51, fly the fastest fastest race ever, averaging  507 mph over the course). These planes' designs are the ultimate expression of propeller-driven design and performance, although more than 60 yearns old, now. To see them travelling fast at (relatively) close range is a beautiful sight, and since admittedly, they cannot fly forever, this is becoming a see-it-before-it's-gone event.
     I was a bit disappointed  that I could not attend again this year, but I am fortunate to have missed it because, as it turns out, the crash on Friday occurred not far from where we regularly sat in the grandstands. Jim called me on Friday to alert me about the news of the crash, and I have been searching the last couple of days looking for good information. From the photos I have come across, the location of where the plane hit was less than 200 feet from our regular seats (see below).

News photo from

The view from our seats, a few years ago: as best I can determine, the plane hit approximately between the two yellow banners near the center of the picture, about 150 feet away.

    It appears now that there may have been a mechanical failure involving the left rear horizontal stabilizer, as photos of the plane just before the crash seem to show damage to the trim tab. If so, the failure would be unforeseeable, and may have caused the plane's irrecoverable roll seen in videos.

      The air races necessarily entail a certain amount of risk, like all racing sports, and things do occasionally go awry, but usually do not have such dire results; this is the first time that spectators have been involved in an accident at Reno. The incidents are usually only enough to cause mild concern, or provide only a minor spectacle.

2006: Ouch. P-51 Merlin's Magic suffered a catastrophic engine failure during a qualifying race early in the week. The pilot landed safely without power.
2006: Bad luck. Merlin's Magic suffers structural damage five days later while on the ground, when an oxygen tank ruptures.

    As a whole, the Reno Air Races are a relatively small event which has been overlooked by broadcast sports media and the general public, but is attended by a knowledgeable and interested audience with a large proportion of pilots, military, and people working in or familiar with aviation. I felt that there was also a congenial and easy-going family atmosphere unlike most large sports events I have attended. I was always impressed with the amount of emphasis that the organizers placed on safety, training and professional skills of the pilots, and I have the impression that the audience did not take technical and safety concerns lightly, either. There is a little of The Right Stuff attitude in the atmosphere about the event, but you should read Tom Wolfe to get a better explanation of it than I can give here.

    It would be sad if the races could not continue, and there is sure to much discussion about what should be done in the wake of this incident, but the things that can go wrong are most likely to be a result of operating these planes and engines near their physical limits, rather than reckless or negligent actions of pilots or planners.  I doubt that much could be done differently without adversely affecting the show as a whole, and I also doubt that many in the crowd would want the event to be any less than it is.