Sport Class pilots will fly the missing man formation Sept. 11 to honor Lee Behel, a longtime National Championship Air Race pilot who died Sept. 8 in a crash during qualification.
Behel was flying Sweet Dreams, the experimental GP-5 in which he won the class in 2008, when he suffered what a race official described to the Reno Gazette-Journal as a “catastrophic mechanical failure” and crashed at the north end of the course, well away from spectators and ground personnel. Qualifying was suspended following the afternoon incident, but resumed Sept. 9. The NTSB and FAA are both investigating.
Behel fitted Sweet Dreams with a Chevrolet V-8, and needed a rules change to get it into the races. He told the Gazette-Journal in 2010 that the small block Chevrolet engine was unlike aviation engines in several respects, including the sound.
Hot Rod Magazine detailed the engine modification in photos published online in August.
Graham Hawkes, founder and chief technology officer of DeepFlight, which creates submarines that can be “flown” like high-performance aircraft, told the newspaper that Behel distinguished himself quickly as an underwater pilot, and became a test pilot for the company.
“He would take it straight down nose-down as fast as you can and throw it over and try to break it and you never could,” Hawkes told the newspaper. “He was just kind of larger than life. But very calm. Very confident. Very pleasant to be with.”
Behel retired from the Nevada Air National Guard in 1996 after 25 years of service, during which he earned several decorations, according to the Gazette-Journal. Behel won the Sport Class in 2008, after helping to create it a decade before; he had also served as the class president.
“Lee was a very talented pilot but, more importantly, an enthusiastic and compassionate friend and the entire Air Race family will miss him deeply,” said Mike Major, chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association, in a statement issued Sept. 9. “This is a difficult day for all of us and our thoughts and prayers are with Lee’s family and friends.”
Behel is among 20 pilots killed during practice, qualifying, or races in the 51-year history of the event, and the first since a 2011 crash prompted various changes intended to increase safety for spectators and crews.