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Reno Air Races 2011

As most of you know, this year the Reno Air Races ended on Friday, September 16, 2011 at about 4:30 in the afternoon. All of us have seen the clips on TV and the internet of Jimmy Leeward’s P51, Galloping Ghost, crashing into the crowd at Reno… CNN and FOX and all the major networks ran it for days, and 11 people died as a result of the accident. YouTube was flooded with clips from people in the grandstands. A media frenzy was launched, and with every video or picture I saw the nightmare of the day came back to me. Because I was there.

I have been an Air Race Photographer at the Reno National Championship Air Races for five years now. Many of you have seen my pictures and read my stories here at MyMotherlode and in the Sierra Mountain Times. It’s been a labor of my love for the airplanes and the story each year to tell you about the experience of seeing it happen. I’ve been part of the once-a-year family at Reno, and I’ve seen and lived some great years.

On Friday this year, at about 430 in the afternoon the unexpected happened. At odds of a million-to-one, Galloping Ghost left formation in the Unlimited race lap three in what we all thought was a Mayday… pulling up, in a high G vertical climb (knocking out Jimmy) then diving into what the Reno Gazette Journal described the next day as “CARNAGE” in their front-page headline.

I saw it happen. From the east pylon I saw the plane hit. It was Mt. Saint Helen’s exploding right in front of the crowd. I remember yelling out NO NO NO oh my God… I looked through my camera to see what I could see, and I wish I never did. I couldn’t believe what I saw was real. The sound hit us, a mile out on the pylon, with a massive “Ka-whumph!” and I was stunned, disbelieving. What had just happened?

What had happened will haunt me forever. People had died in what I’d just seen. There were tears in my eyes and I kept saying Omigod omigod… The pylon judges herded all us photographers back on the bus, with admonitions of “don’t take any pictures” and we somberly made our way back to the press shack. I remember looking out the window of the bus, seeing the crowds leaving, the firetrucks and ambulances and helocopters rushing to the scene… it all seemed so surreal.

After a short press conference at the press center they told us to go home. It was over. The races were cancelled for the weekend. I walked down to the pits to say goodebye to a few dear friends. Everybody was in shock. Shaking, crying. I even saw some who had responded to the emergency with clothing covered with blood. I decided it was time to go back to my tent on the outskirts of the airport. The beautiful day had turned horrible in an instant.

I watched some TV with a few friends at our campsite. None of us could believe what had happened. Our beloved Air Races were over. Maybe for good. I left the next morning after trying to get back in to say goodbye to some friends I’d missed the night before. No doing that, the NTSB had the airport locked down like it was 9-11 again. I got in my truck and headed home.

I guess I made the evening news… I stopped for a few minutes to give an interview with ABC channel 8 Reno News, and by the time I got back home to Twain Harte I’d already been seen worldwide on the ABC Evening News, Good Morning America and Yahoo News. MY family and friends (all the way to New Zealand) had already seen me on TV. They knew I was okay.

I really hope this is not the end of the Reno Air Races. There is nothing in the world like this. Nowhere else do they race like they do at Reno, no where else do they even come close to the airshow and the thrill of seeing the spectacle of the races or feel the comaraderie of the air race family. As bad as this was, this was a million-to-one accident that god decided to have happen. I hope someday, (next September) I can go again to see and hear the planes racing across the desert. My airrace family awaits me, and I can’t wait to share the hugs and smiles with all of them… I urge everybody out there to support the continuation of this 48-year tradition (which has always been safe) to let us see the Reno Air Races 2012. It ain’t the end of the world, but to let this go would be the end of a proud American tradition.

Please keep my Air Races alive. Post on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, email all your friends. There is nothing that compares to the history, the daring, the sheer courage of these wonderful years of history. Nothing at all…