Making Sense of the Unthinkable

Despite a perfect beginning, the 2011 Reno Air Races ended in tragedy.

Reno Air Race grandstands, minutes before the accident.

After having experienced the Reno Air Races once in 2003, I was thrilled to return to the show this year. The weather forecast for the races looked good and the lineup of race airplanes was as exciting as ever. I took off IFR into a 1,200-foot ceiling on Thursday morning in a 172RG that I rented from the local flight school at Santa Monica Airport. It was great getting some actual time, but the clouds were not thick and I continued my flight into smooth clear skies, enjoying the views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I managed to fly right over Yosemite, and from my initial perspective of the park, Half Dome reminded me of the back of a bald man’s head. I had never seen the famous feature from that perspective, and it made me giggle to myself. I continued over the southeast edge of Lake Tahoe and arrived in Reno a little after noon. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened the next day.

Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, started out great. Clear skies and light winds made for perfect race weather. I had an opportunity to sit in September Fury – a Hawker Sea Fury piloted by Hoot Gibson, and Gibson thoroughly explained several of the modifications that make this Unlimited race airplane go at speeds as high as 500 mph. Unfortunately Gibson had blown his engine the day before and was out of the race, but thankfully he landed the Sea Fury without incident.

It was business as usual for an aviation journalist. I spoke at length with Mike Houghton, CEO of Reno Air Race Association (RARA), about the challenges that face the Air Races. A relaxed Houghton spoke candidly about the continuous changes the organization has made to make the races safer. He also explained the challenges of paying for an event that takes seven staff members a full year to organize and 2,500 workers and volunteers to run with only a week’s worth of revenue.

Less than 30 minutes after I spoke with Houghton, I was standing in a fenced in corner from which I had a perfect view of the flight line and the grandstands. As the Unlimited racers who had qualified for the Gold heat taxied out for departure, David Martin performed a beautiful aerobatic performance in his bright yellow and black Akrotech CAP 232.

Martin finished his routine and it was time for the Unlimited Class racers to fly their race. Under mostly cloudy skies, the usual suspects took off, including Rare Bear, a Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat piloted by Stewart Dawson,_ Strega_, a P-51D Mustang flown by Steven Hinton and_ Galloping Ghost_, another Mustang with Jimmy Leeward at the controls.

The excitement was palpable as the warbirds came in from the right of the show center and pace plane pilot Steve Hinton (Steven’s father) announced: “Gentlemen, you have a race!”

While there are several airplanes in the Unlimited category of the same type, such as the P-51s and Sea Furys, each airplane has unique modifications. As a result, the sounds they emit are distinctive and they really pumped me up as a spectator. The sound of Rare Bear was my favorite. It was a deep roar that rattled my chest cavity as the airplane zoomed by.

The group was fairly well spread out after a few circles around the course. Suddenly, I saw a gray airplane pitch up. This is the standard procedure for a mayday since the airplanes fly so low to the ground and high speeds. Trading airspeed for altitude makes perfect sense. But as I watched the airplane climb, I realized that this was not going to be a normal mayday.

The airplane continued to pitch straight up, then went inverted a few hundred feet above my head and I watched in horror as the airplane continued its trajectory straight down toward the grandstands where thousands of people were watching. The entire event took seconds, but to me it appeared to happen in slow motion.

Inevitably, the airplane struck the ground and thousands of pieces and dust went into the air. I didn’t see any kind of fireball during the crash. A truck partially obscured my view of the final point of impact, but I saw that the airplane ended up toward the front of the VIP boxes – an area where groups can buy exclusive seats, separated by metal bars. From where I was standing, I couldn’t see anything left of the airplane, but knowing approximately where it crashed, there was no question in my mind that there were multiple fatalities.

I was thankful to be too far away to see the gory details, but I imagine there must have been initial panic in the area near the impact site. However, despite the fact that the event had played out about a hundred feet in front of the announcer’s stand, the announcer remained extremely calm and incredibly professional. While fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles flooded the scene, a very comforting voice was heard on the loud speaker, thanking the people for their concern for the injured, asking them to remain calm. Soon after, the announcer asked the visitors to leave the grounds, but requested anyone with medical experience to stay and assist.

RARA volunteers ushered somber-faced people away from the scene of the accident and cleared the path for a seemingly continuous stream of emergency vehicles.

I knew my good friend John Ryan was near the area of the crash site, and my first thought was with him. Was he safe? I sent him a text message to check in. I didn’t hear back initially and I became very worried.

As I walked toward the media center, I called my boss, Robert Goyer, who helped me make sense of what I should do next. I was too numb to think clearly myself. Fortunately, as I spoke with Robert, I received a message from John. He was safe. Sadly, one member of his group was killed instantly when he was hit by the airplane. Another was seriously injured.

I began receiving calls and texts from several friends who were at the races asking whether I was safe, and soon after, friends who had already seen the accident on the news started contacting me.

I overheard a phone conversation from a man talking to his girlfriend. He told her that he was close enough to the scene of the accident that the force from the impact knocked him to the ground. There was evidence of blood and dust on his skin and clothing. He finished his conversation with his girlfriend with these words: “I’m alive. I don’t know how, but I’m alive.” The conversation made the hairs on my arms stand up and gave me chills down my spine.

The organizers quickly canceled the remainder of the races, but obtaining any other information proved difficult. I returned to my hotel, and for the remainder of the evening I felt a numbness I’ve never experienced before. I felt deep sadness and sympathy for those who had lost lives, limbs, and loved ones.

It wasn’t until I climbed back into the Cessna 172RG to return to Santa Monica on Saturday afternoon that I began to return to normal. Getting into the cockpit gave me a sense of peace and solace. My hands, which had been trembling for the past 24 hours, finally steadied on the yoke. The constant hum of the engine, and the familiar voices of ATC and my fellow pilots in my headset became the therapy I so badly needed after such a tragic event.