Mammoth’s Shields Richardson took this photo about ten minutes after the accident.
Will Reno Air Races be grounded for good after last week’s tragedy?
Like many, I watched the horrific video of a P-51 Mustang slam into spectators at the Reno Air Races last Friday. The crash of the “Galloping Ghost,” a heavily modified WWII-era war bird, has so far claimed the lives of 11 people on the ground. Dozens more were injured and some are still in the hospital in critical condition.
Unlike many, however, I knew the pilot. Jimmy Leeward, 74, hailed from Ocala, Fla., where much of my family still lives. Our families knew each other from church and civic events, and I went to school for many years with one of his sons, Kent, who now helps run the Leeward Air Ranch family business.
Leeward was the twentieth pilot to die at the event since it began 47 years ago. Over the years, he became an expert at flying P-51s (he owned and flew two), earning worldwide notoriety as one of the world’s premiere war and vintage aircraft pilots. He was not only was a highly respected competitor in professional air racing, but also lent his considerable flying skills to the movies, as a stunt pilot in films such as “The Tuskegee Airmen” for HBO, about the legendary African-American fighter squadron, and more recently the biopic, “Amelia,” about the life and disappearance of another great flyer, Amelia Earhart.
Bishop locals Nils Davis and wife Keri were among those who witnessed Leeward’s ill-fated final race. “We saw pretty much the entire thing; Leeward hit about 500 feet from where we were, which was about 10 feet from Leeward’s pit,” Nils told The Sheet. The accident affected Keri on a very personal level. Her father was Jim Orton, another well-respected pilot, who raced in Reno during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s until he was killed in a crash in Arizona with another top aviator, Jim Maloney, in 1982.
The Davis’s were with the Maloney family, which not only owns the Chino-based Planes of Fame Museum, but also races its own P-51, Team Strega. “[Leeward] had just passed from fourth into third, and as he came by at the end of lap three, he pitched up and turned over so much that instead of seeing the underside, we were looking at the top.”
According to Davis, it was clear to the Maloneys and others he and Keri were with that something had gone terribly wrong. Leeward was climbing up and to the south instead of banking to the north. “He went into an inverted loop, and then he just plunged down at a steep angle,” Davis recounted. “I realized into the dive that this was going to go badly.”
Mammoth local Shields Richardson also witnessed the crash, saying his first reaction was one of disbelief. “We were to the north about 150 yards and witnessed the crash. I didn’t realize the casualties right away, until I got closer, since we were on tarmac when it happened,” he said via e-mail. “What was amazing is how quick the emergency response was and how orderly the clearing of the event went.”
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said they are still looking into what brought down the plane, which was built in 1944 and had previously crashed in 1970. The agency is likely to be assisted in the long, detailed analysis by telemetry from the plane recorded by the crew, and onboard camera footage recovered from the crash. Part of the focus is on what might have been a piece of the tail assembly — possibly the trim tab on the left elevator — that had fallen off.
Early eyewitness accounts reported that Leeward struggled to steer the plane away from the grandstands in the last seconds prior to impact. Those accounts, however, are countered by other pilots, who suggest that given the g-forces Leeward was exposed to during the accident, it’s more likely he lost consciousness or even had his neck snapped.
There have already been calls for the Air Races to be possibly grounded for good, citing obvious safety concerns for both the pilots and the fans. Race officials said late Friday, soon after the Reno accident, that shutting down the races permanently was a premature notion. Even Mrs. Leeward indicated in a brief statement that she didn’t want the event to end because of the accident.
Those calls raised issues about fan safety, not only as relates to air competition, but also other high performance sports, such as powerboat and auto racing. Often the fans and the danger are separated only be fencing and barricades, and in the case of air racing nothing at all.
In August 2010, eight people were killed and 10 injured when a driver racing in the California 200 desert race in Lucerne Valley lost control of his off-road racer and slammed into a group of spectators who were standing, unshielded, merely a few feet away from the course.
Attending sporting events comes with inherent risk. Interestinly, in terms of rates of spectator injury, air racing isn’t even in the top 10. As the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) points out on its website, “It has been six decades since a spectator at an air show in the United States has been killed or injured in an accident.”
And in auto racing, barricade and other crash technology has substantially reduced the danger to both drivers and fans. Air races are conducted in the open, with viewing grandstands placed at what is determined by race officials to be a reasonably safe distance. Nonetheless, at 400-500 mph and only 50-60 feet off the ground, planes can cover a tremendous distance in a very short period of time. That shrinks the pilot’s decision-making time to fractions of a second at best.
Then there are the economics of race events, which are often large revenue generators to local economies, many of which are still facing challenging times.
“Reno doesn’t have a lot of the economic problems that Las Vegas does, such as empty subdivisions and casinos, but the Air Races are one of the keystone summer events that bring in a lot of tourism and business, and it would be a major blow to lose them,” commented Pete Mokler, a long time Mammoth local and now Reno resident.
Remembering Leeward will be up to the individual, perhaps, but it’s important to keep in mind that what happened, though terribly tragic, was ultimately an accident. Man takes to the air, but is allowed to remain there only at nature’s discretion.
Leeward’s life was that of a champion, but it remains to be seen whether the races that led to his death and those of the spectators will be grounded, leaving only an empty sky.