Return to the Valley of Speed

Reno remembers with celebration and memorial

November 1, 2012

reno air races

Photography by Chris Rose

The excitement of the Reno Air Races is not only the sights, but also the sounds. Throaty P–51 Mustangs duke it out in the Nevada skies, just 50 feet above the ground at speeds approaching 500 mph as they race around the 8.1-mile Unlimited course. Vintage T–6s are a spectator favorite, their radial engines spitting out ear-shattering growls. And aircraft in the Jet Class, Sport Class, Formula One Class, and Biplane Class howl around the course as they race wing tip to wing tip down the “valley of speed.”

The only event of its kind in the world, Reno’s air races began in 1964 when Bill Stead—a local rancher, hydroplane racer, and pilot—brought the tradition of the Cleveland Air Races to Reno. To the delight of enthusiastic race fans, the races have been held every year except 2001, when all aircraft in the United States were grounded following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

In its almost 50 years of racing, the Reno Air Races has had its share of fatal accidents, but until 2011, no spectator had ever been killed by a race airplane. The facts of the 2011 accident are well known. According to the NTSB Aviation Accident Brief: “On September 16, 2011, about 1625 Pacific daylight time, an experimental, single-seat North American P–51D, N79111, struck the airport ramp in the spectator box seating area following a loss of control during the National Championship Air Races Unlimited Class Gold race at the Reno/Stead Airport (RTS), Reno, Nevada.

reno air races

“The accident airplane was in third place during the third lap of the six-lap race and was traveling about 445 knots when it experienced a left roll upset and high-G pitch up. Subsequently, the airplane entered a right-rolling climb maneuver. During these events, the vertical acceleration peaked at 17.3 G, and, a few seconds later, a section of the left elevator trim tab separated in flight. The characteristics of the airplane’s pitch changes during the upset were such that the pilot’s time of useful consciousness was likely less than 1 second. As a result, the pilot soon became completely incapacitated, and the airplane’s continued climb and helical descent occurred without his control.”

The tragic crash of The Galloping Ghost P–51D ended the lives of 11 people—10 spectators and the Ghost’s 74-year-old pilot, Jimmy Leeward. The accident changed the lives of the more than 60 spectators who were injured, the thousands of race fans who witnessed the accident, and the millions of people who saw it or heard about it through the media. Most people thought the air races were over forever.

On September 12, the Reno National Championship Air Races came roaring back, both celebrating the joy of flight and remembering those who perished.

To the spectators, there were very few noticeable changes, except the tongue-twisting name change from “Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show” to “TravelNevada.com Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show Presented by Breitling.” The name change was a tribute to TravelNevada and Breitling for the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated. Other than higher ticket prices, concrete barriers in front of the grandstands, and the subtly subdued mood of the crowd, the races went on as usual. The racecourse was moved back 150 feet (see “Significant Course Changes,” page 59), but the airplanes were easily seen and heard, and the racing motto—“fly low, fly fast, turn left”—was still in operation. Some may have noticed the absence of a military team, such as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that flew last year, but The Patriots Jet Team, a civilian flying act, and the F–22 Raptor demonstration filled the speed and noise gap.

To the spectators, there were very few noticeable changes, except the tongue-twisting name change from “Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show” to “TravelNevada.com Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show Presented by Breitling.” The name change was a tribute to TravelNevada and Breitling for the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated. Other than higher ticket prices, concrete barriers in front of the grandstands, and the subtly subdued mood of the crowd, the races went on as usual. The racecourse was moved back 150 feet (see “Significant Course Changes,” page 59), but the airplanes were easily seen and heard, and the racing motto—“fly low, fly fast, turn left”—was still in operation. Some may have noticed the absence of a military team, such as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that flew last year, but The Patriots Jet Team, a civilian flying act, and the F–22 Raptor demonstration filled the speed and noise gap.

Spectators were treated to the exciting racing that defines the Reno Air Races. The races culminated on Sunday, when 25-year-old Steve Hinton won the Unlimited Gold championship flying the P-51D Strega to a speed of 477.523. The other classes delivered their own brand of racing entertainment, turning in safe and exciting races.

But it was a different race environment. For anyone who needed it, professional grief counseling was provided free of charge on site. Some of the survivors returned to the races, including members of the Elvin family from Kansas, four of whom had severe injuries. Cherie Elvin, 73, was killed in the crash. Chuck Elvin, Cherie’s husband of 52 years, told the Reno Gazette-Journal, “I think it’s been good to get some closure.”

Race fan Mark Muhar looked forward to the races. “You never want to see what happened here last year, but I had no misgivings about coming.”

flying is beautiful robert "hoot" gibson

As expected, the aircraft were subject to more inspections. Class Aircraft Compliance Inspection teams were created for each race class. The teams must ensure that the aircraft are inspected and any necessary corrective actions are taken. A Reno Air Races Association (RARA) pilot coordinator collects and submits the completed reports to the FAA’s Reno Flight Standards District Office. Once the teams and the FSDO have completed their reviews, aircraft are released for racing. In addition, any maintenance critical to flight made during race week, such as engine change or the replacement of flight controls, is subject to additional inspections and approvals.

The race pilots also faced increased scrutiny. RARA now requires all participating pilots to hold a Class I or Class II medical certificate issued within six months prior to the races.

And there’s a new requirement that focuses on reducing the potential for G-induced pilot loss of consciousness. For example, to help build G tolerance, all race pilots must fly a practice session before attempting to qualify at maximum speeds.

Pylon judges, photographers, and ramp personnel also have seen changes with new rules meant to keep them out of harm’s way. The shuffling of media personnel back and forth from pylons to sterile areas seemed counterproductive to some, but as one volunteer noted, “We had to show we were improving safety.”

While the race pilots, judges, ramp personnel, and media faced new rules, the airshow pilots saw no changes. “From the performer’s perspective, I saw no difference from last year,” said David Martin, who flew his high-energy aerobatic display in 2011 and 2012.

“We must overcome setbacks. We had to overcome the ‘Challenger’ and ‘Columbia’ accidents. We can't let setbacks stifle us. —Robert "Hoot" Gibson, unlimited class racer, former astronaut

reno air races

While no one can put a price on human life and suffering, it’s much easier to tally the cost of the event. The insurance premium for the races was $2 million—an increase of $1.7 million over previous years. To help offset the increased costs, ticket prices went up, and RARA solicited donations. Word on the tarmac was that RARA was operating leaner than ever before, cutting costs where it could. Advance ticket sales were reported to be down, and as of this writing, there is no information on final ticket sales, but seasoned volunteers thought the crowds were thinner this year.

Talking to racers, RARA representatives, sponsors, pylon judges, photographers, reporters, vendors, and race fans, it’s clear that the Reno Air Races have tremendous support. Whether the race is sustainable with its dramatically increased costs is the question. The event brings more than 200,000 visitors to the area and generates more than $50 million in economic impact.

Key sponsors Nikon and Breitling pledged their continuing support. “There was no doubt about our coming back this year,” said Bill Pekala, spokesman for Nikon. “We are a little somber, but we’re trying to move beyond it. We’ll definitely be back.”

small child at reno air races

“I like the extra scrutiny and the extra eyes looking things over. It makes it safer for all of us. —Vicky Benzing, sport class racer

jimmy leward memorial reno air races

Breitling’s marketing director, Lisa Roman agreed. “We fully support this event. It’s a unique experience. You can’t go anywhere else in the world to get this type of racing.”

the emotional memorial ceremony at noon on Sunday reminded everyone of the magnitude of the tragedy. The names of the 11 people killed were read, and a white balloon was released for each of them. In his tribute to the victims, RARA President and CEO Mike Houghton said, “We have all shed many tears and had many long conversations as we miss our loved ones and think about life the way it was.”

And in a moving speech, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) remarked, “One year later, as this year’s air races come to an end, I hope that we have taken an important first step toward recovering as a community.”

Spectators in the grandstands listened respectfully; some shed tears and held hands. Most were glad to be there, in spite of the tragedy. “I’m enjoying the show. I’ve always loved race planes,” said one fan, who was back in the stands after a 20-year absence.

An accident-free 2012 race is a big step on the road to recovery for the Reno Air Races. Based on input from the racers, judges, volunteers, and others about this year’s event, improvements will be made for the fiftieth anniversary air races scheduled for next September. Marilyn Newton, photographer for the Reno Gazette-Journal, has covered every race since 1964. She plans to be there in 2013. “It will be my fiftieth year working for the paper, and the fiftieth anniversary of the air races. What better way to celebrate?”

Geri Silveira is a freelance writer living in California.