I wanted to get this blog posted due to the current events that have happened. The photographs shown here are from the 2009 Reno Air Races that I took. NCAR owns all copyrights to any photos and videos taken at the show. This means these photographs cannot be used for profit. I have been given permission by the NCAR back in 2009, to show these photos on my website but they are not for sale.
Friday, September 16, 2011, I went to work on a marketing photo shoot that involved the rest of the afternoon. Upon returning home, I stowed my camera gear in my office then turned on the TV for local news. Seeing a video played on the screen of a horrific plane accident that appeared to involved spectators, I paused and turned up the volume. My heart flipped when I heard this had happen at the Reno Air Races. The news stated that it involved many casualties. I immediately picked up my cell phone and started making calls as I was concern for family members and friends who were in attendance and/or were participating in the event. My first call went out to my Dad and when no one answered I began to feel the icy grip of fear. I was near tears as I hung up and called my brother Greg’s cell and was somewhat relieved in hearing his voice but feared he would have bad news. He quickly assured me that all family and friends were fine and that he would call me later for his phone was constantly ringing as other family members and friends who were there, plus those not in attendance such as myself, were making contact to get assurance of everyone safety and well-being. I feel for those who did not get this reassurance. I experienced, if only for a moment, what it must have been like for them.
I come from a family of race fans of all kinds and my Dad, a pilot, instructor, retired crop duster, licensed airplane mechanic and a former crew chief for race pilot, Nick Macy. So I know what I am writing about here.
My brother Greg and his wife Diane both are pilots. Each have their own planes and a hangar there at Steads Airfield Airport, in Reno where the races are held. During the week of many annual Reno Air Races my Dad, his wife, brothers Greg and Pat and their families along with many friends gather and hang out at another friends hangar. This hangar is huge and has a master size bathroom, seating area and refrigerator full of refreshment. A barbecue gets going just outside the hangar most evenings and brother Greg’s fifth wheel parked out back to accommodate the overflow from the hangar.
Another gathering place is at Macy’s assigned pit area where race pilot Nick Macy, his crew, family and friends converge. In between races Nick’s plane gets towed back to this area where those with pit passes can have a closer look at the vintage super machine, a Corsair. And yet another gathering place is at race pilot Bill Whitlach’s pit area. Hew flies the late Bob Yancy’s plane, a Russian Yak. Bob was another family friend who raced planes at the Reno Air Races till his passing from cancer several years ago.
So with so many friends, family and acquaintances that I knew were there, not to mention those I knew who could be there, you can understand my reaction to the news of many casualties. Before I continue I want to say how sorry I am for those who lost their lives or are fighting to stay alive and what their families are going through. My thoughts and prayers go out to you.
I have been told that this horrific accident could cause the cancellation of future annual Reno Air Shows. I hope this is not the case. This was an accident like those of other dangerous sports such as car racing and other air shows. All have safety measures in place that are constantly being improved upon.
In 2009, I joined family and friends at Stead Field Airport, in Reno, for four full days of air racing and other spectacular air performances. The atmosphere charged with anticipation and tension of the unknown outcome that evoked the feelings of excitement of your pilot winning and apprehension of the always present dangers.
During my time there I saw one accident, involving one plane, and the pilot walked away to everyone’s relief. In this air racing event in Reno has been an annual event for forty-seven years and there have been 19 fatalities before this year and none were spectators. To me this is a small number considering the dangers involved. I attributed that small amount to the safety conscious effort from of all those involved in this extreme sport. Air Racing is dangerous as it involves man-made machines, some modified to have unbelievable power/speed, all under the control of a man/woman. The pilots push their plane to their limits edge with skill and knowledge. It is one of the earliest form of extreme sports. These pilots and their crews are the best in what they do.
Spectators flock to the races in great numbers to experience the thrill and excitement of the event. This would not happen if the extreme threat of real danger did not exist. I have felt that thrill as a spectator. It was a mixture of wanting to cheer my favorite pilots on, Nick and Bill, and at the same time, fear of something going terribly wrong that the pilots nor their crew could foresee. To be brutally honest, that is a rush! Which is what extreme sports is all about. I did a little research and found that in the past forty-eight years of the Indie 500 races, ten drivers, one track personal and 3 spectators died. Going back to Indie’s beginning, the numbers in all areas rise. There are many extreme racing events throughout the world. Due to the extreme speeds and closeness of machine and man, accidents will happen. These are unfortunate, but to ban them! There is more hazards in everyday life from people being careless. At least at these events safety is a priority.
When I was at the 2009 races I witness all the safety that was in place. I was in awe at some of the spectators as they got so involved in trying to capture an image with their cameras or wanting to get a closer look, they would venture just past the safety barriers. These spectators were immediately corralled. In the pit area, you had to have a pass to enter, pit crews are very much aware of anyone getting to close to their plane, as was apparent in seeing the nearby ever-present sentinels, this is evident even on the tarmac.
In this extreme sports event, planes fly low at high speeds, at times wing tip to wing tip as they pass each other. They maneuver in close to the staked pylons that mark the air race course.
Besides the racing there is danger in all the performances that entertain the spectators between races. There are the pilots performing air defying stunts, that would make most people lose their lunch at the rapidly changing view seen from the cockpit of alternating sky and fast approaching ground.
I experienced this once flying with my dad in a stunt plane, though not to the extent that you see at shows. Skydivers fall from an aircraft high above, their bodies a tiny speck in the vast blue sky. Those specks take on a human shape that rapidly grows larger as spectators feel a touch of dread when parachutes don’t deploy when they feel it should.
Our armed forces pilots fly their jets upside down towards each other in what appears as a mid-air collision only a few hundred feet above the airstrip and in different very tight flight formation making one grimace as they pass by us in an arena of open desert surrounded by distant mountains.
Top-notch pilots are so in tune with their planes that plane and pilot become as one.
The moment a pilot feels something might be wrong, he will pull out immediately and away to avoid any danger to others. This is what appeared to have happened in this tragic event, only by the time, the pilot, Jimmy Leeward was aware of trouble, it quickly escalated into something that a very experienced and highly qualified pilot, such as himself, was unable to get his troubled plane safely away. My heart and prayers goes out to his family/crew. Many family members become part of the crew. Many are pilots themselves. These crews have not only lost a beloved friend/family member, but must also be harboring a form of responsibility in regards to the mechanics of the plane that may have resulted in death of others. A two-fold burden I would not wish on anyone.
I guess what I am trying to say here is that we are all human. We may try but we can not control fate. I know the kind of people who work on these planes and who fly them. They are the best in what they do. My father can attest to this first hand. After each race, pilots and planes are given top priority. The plane is thoroughly inspected. The pilots after conferring with their crew and the press, will retire to a quiet place away from the crowds where he/she can recoup the tremendous energy they spent piloting their plane. This is so very important as they need to be in peak condition both mental and physically before racing again. The time with fans will come later.
As for the spectators they were there for the thrill of being so close to such a potentially dangerous event, as I can attest.
My prayers go out for those who were hurt, for those struggling to live and to those who lives were lost. My sympathy and prayers go out to those family members of the victims and I am sorry that this accident had to happen just as I am sorry for the accidents in the past.
In memory of those extreme jocks present and past, and their faithful fans.
Dee Browning, photographer