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Fallen Reno race pilots lived their aviation passion

T–6 champions died in midair after final heat

Both pilots killed when their race airplanes collided after completing their final heat at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, had extensive experience on the racecourse, and aviation résumés that extended beyond their passion for speed.

The T-6 class races past the crowd, with No. 14 AT-6B 'Baron's Revenge' flown by Chris Rushing in the lead, bottom, and Nick Macy in hot pursuit flying 'Six-Cat,' third from right, on a slightly higher line. Photo by Robert Fisher.
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The T-6 class races past the crowd, with No. 14 AT-6B 'Baron's Revenge' flown by Chris Rushing in the lead, bottom, and Nick Macy in hot pursuit flying 'Six-Cat,' third from right, on a slightly higher line. Photo by Robert Fisher.

Chris Rushing, the reigning champion of the North American T–6 class, had four wins to his name before he crossed the finish line on September 17 and clocked the fastest time in the Gold Medal T–6 race. Rushing, of Thousand Oaks, California, died moments later after his AT–6B Baron's Revenge collided with the second-place finisher and six-time Gold Medal winner Nick Macy's T–6G, Six-Cat, who also died in the accident as both pilots prepared to land after the Gold Medal heat, the final race of their class for 2023.

Their storied aircraft had recorded times in that final T–6 heat that ended the event's long run in Reno, an annual gathering of motorsport speed that began in 1964. Rushing, 65, and Macy, 67, were the last of 24 pilots who would lose their lives during (or just after finishing) races in Reno.

Macy's racing career began in 1986, though he recalled flying agricultural airplanes with his father years before. His father brought the future pilot to the Reno races for the first time when Macy was around the age of 10 or 12, he recalled in an undated interview (likely posted in 2012) by Naomi West for an air racing fan website. "I fell in love with it," Macy recalled of his first spectator experience. "I always wanted to do that."

Chris Rushing, a four-time Gold Medal winner heading into the 2023 races, finished first in the final Gold Medal heat on September 17, moments before the accident in which he died. Photo by Robert Fisher.

Rushing, a veteran of the California National Guard who ran a nonprofit dedicated to honoring veterans with warbird formation flyovers, recorded his first official heats at Reno in 2005, and worked his way up through the Bronze and Silver Medal classes in much the same way Macy had.

Macy ran the family aviation business, Macy's Flying Service, providing agricultural applications to farms in Northern California and Oregon, while working his way up through the field, improving each year until he won the Gold race in Six-Cat in 1999, the first of his six championships. Macy won the Gold Medal race most recently in 2012, according to race results posted online by the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA).

Rushing finished fifth in the 2012 T–6 Gold Medal race, and would go on to win four, including the September 17 final Gold heat that he did not live long enough to celebrate.

“I am completely devastated and heartbroken today,” said Fred Telling, chairman of RARA and president of the T-6 Class, in a statement to the media after the accident. “These two pilots weren’t just an integral part of the National Championship Air Race family; they were a part of my family.”

The final heats were canceled and the event ended with that deadly accident, having persevered through many others before in the decades since the first souped-up airplanes rounded pylons in the Nevada desert nearly 60 years ago. In 2011, 10 spectators were killed along with pilot Jimmy Leeward, who lost control of his modified North American P–51 Mustang Galloping Ghost and dove into the crowd. The NTSB determined that untested modifications had weakened the aircraft's elevator trim assembly.

RARA solicited donations online in the wake of that accident to help cover a $1.7 million increase in insurance premiums following the 2011 accident, and the 2012 races went on as scheduled.

In 2022, an Aero Vodochody L–29 Super Delfin flown by 2021 Rookie of the Year Aaron Hogue, 61, crashed during the final Jet Gold race rounding Pylon 5. RARA announced in March that the 2023 races would be the last held in Reno, though the organization was actively seeking a new venue. RARA said in March that the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority cited "the region's significant growth amongst other concerns" in deciding to "sunset the event."

Rushing, the pilot of the Baron's Revenge Race Team, was also president of the Condor Squadron Officer's and Airmen's Association, a nonprofit based in Van Nuys, California, that organizes warbird flyovers at various events. The group updated its website with a tribute to Rushing, vowing to "continue this mission in his honor."

"Chris was known to many as a great man and a skilled pilot, passionate about aviation and serving the community," the organization wrote. "Chris was a dedicated leader, and enthusiastically led the Condor Squadron in its mission to preserve our Nation’s military aviation heritage, flying hundreds of memorial flights in honor [of] our veterans and in support of our local communities."

Six-time champion Nick Macy raced his 'Six-Cat' on September 17, finishing second in the T-6 Gold Medal race moments before he was killed in a midair collision with fellow race pilot Chris Rushing. Photo by Robert Fisher.

In Macy's hometown, Tulelake, the city announced: "We will be flying flags at half [mast] on city buildings and putting out flags on our homes for the week. Such a loss for our community. It will be felt by all.” Other local tributes included Paul Simmons, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, who issued a statement: "Nick was a pillar of the community and will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers extend to Nick's family."

Macy earned his private pilot certificate at age 18, according to the interview he gave to West about a decade ago. He earned a degree in agricultural science and pest management from the University of Nevada at Reno. He took over the family business from his father, Paul, a B–24 instructor during World War II, in 1985, the year before his first race at Reno.

“Our company philosophy,” Macy told the Herald and News several years ago, “is providing excellent service to our growers and staying informed of the latest developments and technological advances in pest management and to implement techniques, including integrated pest management, to each field situation. It’s not a very easy job. Good pilots make it look easy. It’s nice to get out there and get the job done. I enjoy all aspects of the job. We enjoy the area we [are] living [in] and the people we work with.”

Macy wrote a letter to Congress in 2016, advocating for Tulelake Municipal Airport, where his business had operated for decades, and which was under threat by the pending designation of a national monument nearby.

"It is centrally located in some of the most productive ground anywhere in the world. We cover over 300 square miles and 3 states in order to provide service to our growers. We are licensed agronomists providing recommendations to growers on the use of fertilizers and farm chemicals on a wide variety of crops, which includes both organic and conventionally produced commodities," Macy wrote. "I am here to state my story of success, to protect my business and the wonderful people that I employ while providing services to over 900 family farms. Within the last few years, one of my greatest pleasures was seeing some of my employees retire. This may sound trivial, but for a small business to have people retire means that we have provided good paying jobs for a long time. I want to continue my business at the Tulelake Airport so my children, nieces, nephews and employees will have the same chances I did."

Rushing, a former California National Guard aircraft mechanic, told the Orange County Register in 2013 that the Condor Squadron's flights throughout Southern California, on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, and other celebrations and commemorations, were a heartfelt tribute to military veterans, using the trainer that honed the skills of many Allied pilots in World War II.

"The most fun thing about it all? It's a real honor to be honoring military veterans," Rushing said.

Rushing's racing achievements in the demanding T–6 class nearly equaled those of Macy, who was tied for the overall lead in all-time Gold Medal wins. Rushing won his first T–6 Gold Medal in 2016, followed by four in a row in 2019, 2021 (the 2020 races were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic), 2022, and 2023, when he finished first, at 234.063 miles per hour, not long before the accident that took his life.

Macy told the story of his racing team's origins in an interview he gave for the article by West, recounting that the number was more or less randomly "slapped" on the airplane ahead of his very first race in 1986: "I just went down to see if I could pilot it through qualifications basically was what that year was. I made it through the qualification period and from there it’s been an adventure… It’s been a real adventure for me."

At the time, Macy's racing team was composed of employees (the family business employed up to 45 people during seasonal peaks), augmented by other friends, he told West. He was getting ready, about a decade ago, to turn the ag flying over to the next generation, but planned to keep racing Six-Cat at Reno as long as he could: "I'd like to keep going on…I take it for what it is. I enjoy it. I’m lucky to be able to do it and have the chance to do it. I’d miss it a whole lot if something happened and I couldn’t do it."

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Accident, Air Racing, People

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