Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reno tragedy

Some weeks this seems more like an aerospace blog than a writing blog.

Today I read about the shocking crash at the Reno Air Races, in which a souped-up P-51 Mustang crashed just short of the box seats where spectators were gathered to watch a race.

F-1 races get a lot of press in this part of the world: people love fast cars and the thrill of a potential crash. In air racing, the speeds are much higher--500 mph or more--and the chances of surviving a crash are much lower. Under most circumstances, however, the super-high maintenance standards, pilot experience, race design and simple fact that being in the air gives you more margin for error make it a remarkably safe endeavor. Until Friday, there had been only 19 deaths in 49 years of racing.

What happened yesterday, however, was horrific. The racing Mustang, nicknamed Galloping Ghost, appeared to lose control on a race leg near the grandstand. After a few seconds of struggle, it hit the ground at nearly 90 degrees from horizontal.

Galloping Ghost, piloted by Jimmy Leeward.

No one knows exactly what happened yet. There is some speculation of a mechanical failure, and given the outcome that would make sense--the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, had been flying since he was a teenager and racing for decades. I wonder, though, if he suffered some kind of medical issue and blacked out; note that in the photo above, no pilot is visible. The end result was three people killed and dozens injured, including at least 25 critically. Some have suggested that Leeward deliberately dived at the ground, knowing his plane would hit the grandstand dead-on if he did not. I suspect that the cause of the crash will be determined soon, as his ground team will have telemetry data and radio transcripts to work with.

Attending the Reno Air Races has been a minor dream of mine for a long time. The crash doesn't change that. But it does make it a little more sad: all those people--as I would--went to watch something they loved. Instead, they witnessed a tragedy.

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