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Air race pilot mourned, Reno races suspended

Event stopped after Jet Gold crash

The Stihl National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, ended in tragedy on September 18 when air race competitor and 2021 Rookie of the Year Aaron Hogue, 61, was killed piloting the number 29 jet, an Aero Vodochody L–29 Super Delfin, during the final Jet Gold race.

Hogue's L–29 Ballista was closely matched heading into the final heat with another L–29 flown by Peter Stavrides. The two were separated by a fraction of a second going into the race and were running neck and neck in the third lap. Rounding a gate, Hogue eased out of the roll and began to climb, which the announcers remarked as unusual. Suddenly, the L–29 stopped climbing and rolled right, veering away from the course, then back to the left, but the nose had dropped and the jet maintained a shallow descent, left wing low, into the ground.

“We can confirm that during the Jet Gold Race on the third lap there was a fatal incident at Outer Pylon 5 today,” the Reno Air Racing Association wrote in a statement posted on social media. “There will be an investigation conducted by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). All other pilots landed safely and race operations for 2022 have been suspended.”

The “world’s fastest motorsport,” as the long-running event is billed, is not new to tragedy. In 2014, USA Today reported that “in the 51-year history of the Air Races, 19 pilots have died during racing.” Others have lost their lives preparing to race, including Sherman Smoot, a race pilot who was killed during a test flight on September 2. Race aircraft were decorated this year with tributes to Smoot. 

The deadliest event occurred in 2011 when air race pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators were killed after Leeward’s highly modified North American P–51D Mustang Galloping Ghost crashed into the crowd after a trim tab failure made the aircraft impossible to control.

The devastating end to the 2022 races topped an already disappointing week due to a low spectator turnout as well as low visibility from wildfire smoke.

“We can’t see the pylons a quarter mile in front of us,” said Unlimited Gold Hawker Sea Fury race pilot Bernie Vasquez. “It’s one thing to go out there and qualify like that by yourself…but if we’re going to have six airplanes all in the same area going for the same pylon, it’s just not safe.”

Despite smoke being in the forecast and the overall risky nature of the sport, Vasquez says he keeps coming back to Reno because “it’s like a family reunion. I’m 43 years old, I’ve been doing this for 25 of those 43 years so these people are as close to me as my family, family.”

Another group of longtime air race supporters and spectators are Reno locals Peggy and Jeff Kreck. “The first race we came to Bob Hoover started it. It was so cool hearing him say, ‘Gentlemen we have a race’… and I just love the noise.”

Although the future of the races may be uncertain, air race pilots are looking forward to seeing the next generation take flight at Reno. “We’re bringing up a whole new generation now,” said Vasquez as he watched young Owen Swager pedal away in his Dreadnought pedal plane. “I’m no longer a kid in this, I’m now one of the old guys, I’m not taking it very well, but it is what it is. There’s a whole new generation we’re looking at.”

Smoke from wildfires contributed to a lower-than-average turnout at the 2022 Stihl National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. Several aircraft manufacturers, including CubCrafters, were on-site throughout the event. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. STOL Drag competitors race toward the finish line of the AOPA-sponsored event held during race week. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. Two North American T–6 Texans depart to begin a smoky race. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. First-time race attendee and Premier Aircraft Sales representative Lee Drumheller said, “There’s Sun 'n Fun and Oshkosh and all the regional fly-ins all year round, but Reno is just a special event for real aviation enthusiasts.” Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. 'Dreadnought' and 'Argonaut,' two legendary Hawker Sea Furys, are pictured just prior to an Unlimited Gold Race. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. 'Man ‘O War,' a North American P–51 Mustang, pays tribute to Sherman Smoot, a race pilot who was killed during a test flight September 2 while preparing for the races. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. Bernie Vasquez gets situated in the cockpit of a Hawker Sea Fury as teammate Steven Koewler stands by just prior to Saturday’s Unlimited Gold Race. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. Reno locals, from left to right, Jeff Kreck, Tim Piazza, Lisa Piazza, and Peggy Kreck, showed their support for the biplane class. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. A group of North American T–6 Texans and Canadian Car and Foundry Harvards line up before their race. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. Two gentlemen enjoy glamourous airline seating for ideal race viewing. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. A Hawker Sea Fury races behind the Home Pylon. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt.
Cayla McLeod

Cayla McLeod Hunt

Social Media Marketer
Social Media Marketer Cayla McLeod Hunt is a private pilot with a love for tailwheel and backcountry aircraft. When she isn't writing stories, she enjoys flying with friends and introducing others to general aviation.

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