National Championship Air Races – Reno, NV
This tale has two stories. We only know what we saw.
“The Biggest Little City in the World” is Reno’s long-standing slogan. If you haven’t been, it’s like downtown Las Vegas, about 25 years ago. Under 55s need not apply. We decided to pass the time and partake in the local goings on by hitting up the bingo parlor at the Sands Casino. Youngest participants by 30 years easily, we made friends who gave us the info about the myriad of different bingo games we had gotten ourselves into. They’ve made it easier for participants by handing out electronic bingo cards if you request them, but come on, what’s the fun in that?
Needless to say, we needed a change of scenery after a couple of days. The Reno-Stead airport was like an oasis in the desert heat. You hear the planes before seeing them, so we followed the sounds to the entrance. Our general admission ticket got us into the grounds and open seating grandstands. We decided to check out the parked airplanes that were on display before taking in the races.
Being race show novices, we were overwhelmed with the military and veteran presence around us. Every where you turned there were people wearing military/veteran hats, booths selling a dizzying array military pins and patches, and numerous parked ex and current military aircrafts. WWII planes, military helicopters, and jets were all in attendance. Our favorite was the Globemaster III, brought in from the Hawaii Air National Guard. We made friends with the loadmaster before being allowed into the cockpit, where the pilot answered all of our questions and told us of his experiences picking up soldiers in theater.
We finally made our way to the grandstands to watch the races, where we were drawn in to the orange shirts of Section 3. We found out that the bright orange shirts were a way for friends and family to find each other at the races in the pre-cell phone era, and has continued to this day. The people of Section 3 were great, answering all of our novice questions about the races, planes, and pilots. Nearly every pilot mentioned over the loudspeaker was ex-military, which as we knew by now was the theme of the day. Once we stopped to think about it, it makes sense. There aren’t many other outlets where people can learn to fly planes of a fast nature.
We watched a couple of races with planes in different categories and styles, but they also seemed to be decided right from the start, with the lead plane taking the win each time. Although you could tell that they were traveling fast, you were far enough away that it didn’t seem all that fast. Maybe that’s what NASCAR is like? We’ll find out soon enough. The more interesting thing was seeing planes fly so close to the ground that you can actually make out the details as they went by.
After the races, the welcoming ceremony began. Led by Navy Seal parachuters, the national anthem played, and America took the forefront. The Air Force welcomed in new recruits, and we were told that the Thunderbirds had just taken off from the other Reno airport. In the meantime, an incredible sideshow took place where a truck raced a plane. Not just any truck though, a truck with a jet engine on the back of it! Inevitably, the truck beat the plane, and the crowd roared with excitement.
Then came the Air Force Thunderbirds. These guys were amazing. They flew in tight formations, crossed paths, flew on top of each other, performed slow rolls, fast rolls, and nearly every other trick in the book. Not to mention their impressive musical coordination, that seemed to be right in line with every new move. They alone were worth the price of admission.
We watched the last race of the day and headed out, having thoroughly enjoyed our day and learned a considerable amount about the airplane world. We were impressive with the planes themselves, having never been as close to grounded planes, and were somewhat humbled by the intense military and veteran presence around us.
We were nearly to Las Vegas on Friday afternoon when we received a panic-ridden call from my Dad, asking if we were still at the air races.
There had been a crash. The news reports called it a mass casualty scene. We weren’t there.
a P-51D Mustang flown by stunt pilot James K. “Jimmy” Leeward crashed into spectators, killing 11 people including the pilot, and injuring at least 69. Leeward, 74, and his Mustang, The Galloping Ghost, were in fourth place and had just rounded the last pylon when the airplane abruptly pitched up, rolled inverted, then pitched down. The aircraft hit the tarmac in front of the grandstands in an area containing box seating. Seven people, including the pilot, died at the crash site, four died later in the hospital.The weekend’s remaining races at the Reno Air Races were cancelled.
It’s hard to think about. We’ve watched all of the videos, and read all of the horrific stories. Had we been in attendance, we most likely would not have been near to crash site. But we’re thankful to not even have witnessed such a catastrophic event. It’s not our place to pontificate about the reasons for the crash, or to analyze why so many people were at an event where the danger of death loomed. We can only offer thoughts and prayers to those effected by this tragic event.
More than thankful for deciding to leave Reno a day early, we’ve been hit by clarity from these events as well. We all hear that life is short, and to seize the day, carpe diem, and to live like we’re dying. But this isn’t a movie, it’s real life. It’s not realistic for people to do that sometimes. But the clarity we feel now is a bit easier. It’s your life, and if there’s something that you really want to do, find a way to do it. If there’s people that you want to be around, then find a way to be around them. Take a look inside, and decide what it is you want to do with your life, and work hard to achieve that. We rarely have these times of introspection in our lives, but we need them. Have the willingness to go after what you want.
For more information about the Reno Air Races crash and support efforts, please visit the following:
- ABC News
- Youtube (caution: intense)