From the floor of the northern Nevada desert this week, thousands of people from across America will crane their necks toward the sky, marveling at pilots racing thunderous courses at speeds up to 500 mph.
It is a spectacle that has played out for nearly five decades at the National Championship Air Races near Reno, bringing some $80 million in annual revenue to the area.
But tragedy shadows the 2012 version of the celebrated event.
Last year, the spectacle turned into a bloody disaster scene when a vintage plane named Galloping Ghost slammed into box seats of spectators. The crash killed 11 people, including the pilot, and injured more than 70 others, some of whom will be disabled for life.
Lawsuits have been filed, and a $77 million compensation fund has been established for victims and their families.
Yet the show is to go on this week, with a few changes aimed at improving safety for spectators. The event will feature a brief tribute to those who died and were maimed, as well as the “first responders” who aided the injured.
“The Reno Air Races have to keep going,” said longtime pilot and race announcer Steve Stavrakakis, the “voice from above” who tried to calm a stunned and horrified crowd after Galloping Ghost hurtled to earth at 4:16 p.m. last Sept. 16. “This was a terrible accident. But it would be an even greater tragedy if we didn’t hold the event this year.”
Many of those who lost loved ones or suffered injuries last year agree, saying they want the show to continue. Some survivors plan to attend again this year.
“Box seats, front row, exactly where the Ghost ended up last year,” said David Desmon, a Boeing engineer from the Seattle area who lost two friends and came within inches of death himself when the plane crashed a few feet from where he and his girlfriend were sitting. “That’s where I’ll be again this year.”
The sentiment speaks to the character and personalities of air race enthusiasts, many of whom are pilots, military veterans and students of aviation, Desmon and others said.
Desmon is a member of a group of recreational pilots who fly vintage military planes, and for many of them the Reno event is an annual reunion. “A number of people in the group have raced at Reno. The rest of us support them and have for years,” he said.
The National Championship Air Races is the last event of its kind, according to organizers, carrying on a tradition that began in the 1920s in Cleveland.
“The Reno Air Races are a very unique event,” said Desmon, pointing out that the event is the only one that features the marquee “unlimited” class of aircraft, which range from Formula 1 airplanes to home-built racers. “The unlimited class is the one everyone comes to see.”
Last year’s crash involved one of those planes.
Federal investigators blamed the Galloping Ghost’s demise on worn parts, coupled with unprecedented speeds of up to 530 mph. Race coordinators this year made course changes in some classes to position the fastest planes farther from crowds, and pilots are now required to undergo special G-force training.
Despite last year’s casualties, organizers never seriously considered canceling this year’s event, said Mike Houghton, president and chief executive officer of the Reno Air Races.
“Yes, we got a few comments that it would be insensitive to go forward,” and suggestions that some of the highly modified vintage planes should be retired, Houghton said. “But none of those comments came from the people who were affected by last year’s tragedy. They were our inspiration to go on, to move forward.”
Determined to carry on
The weeklong event typically attracts 80,000 to 90,000 people from “all over the world,” said Houghton, and this year will be no exception.
Larry Cruz is among those who plan to attend. Cruz, from Washington state, survived last year’s crash and is still fighting back from disabling injuries including a severed right hand, a crushed right leg and a fractured skull, said his wife, Tracy.
She said she has mixed feelings about her husband attending the race this year, but he is determined to carry on his annual tradition with friends.
Cruz, who runs an aircraft maintenance company, will be front and center with Desmon and others who saw last year’s races turn into chaos when longtime stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward lost control of his vintage P-51 Mustang.
“We were on our feet, clapping and screaming,” Desmon recalled. Then the World War II-era fighter plane began to roll and pitch.
As it came across the top of the grandstand area that afternoon, “it was inverted, upside down,” Desmon said. “At that point we saw a little shimmy in the airplane, and I knew Jimmy was not in control. The nose dropped, and it was pointed right at us.”
He was sure he was going to die.
Desmon dived to the ground, and felt the sear of shrapnel in his legs and back. By the time he got to his feet again, “the airplane had disappeared” into a pile of metal bits. The dead were scattered about, the injured wandering in a daze.
He looked around for his friends, Wendy and George Hewitt. Both had been hit directly.
“Wendy was unrecognizable,” Desmon said. George was nowhere to be found.
Desmon did find Cruz, “with his right arm ripped off and his head split open. We thought he was dead, too.”
Bill Wogan of Arizona and his son Michael were sitting in VIP boxes as the plane scissored from the sky. Michael, 22, who had muscular dystrophy and used a wheelchair, was killed. Bill suffered severe injuries, including the loss of an eye and some of the fingers on his left hand, and was comatose for more than six weeks.
A year later, Wogan is still battling “devastating injuries to his mouth and the bones of his face,” and will need further surgery, said his sister-in-law, Diana Hoover.
“He has no memories” of the day he was hurt, said Hoover. “It’s a blessing.”
Because of his injuries and the pain of his son’s death, Hoover said, Wogan will skip this year’s trip to Reno. But Wogan, a licensed pilot who worked as a loan originator before he was injured, has not lost his love of aviation, she said.
“He and his family are huge fans of airplanes,” said Hoover. “Planes are one of Bill’s great loves.”
For now, rehabilitation has become a full-time job for him and his wife, Ellen, even as they mourn the death of their son.
“Bill has worked very, very hard to come back from this, and he is very determined,” Hoover said. “He has a very strong sense of wanting to be productive, of contributing to his family and society.”
Still, she said, he has a long road ahead.
‘We did our jobs’
Wogan and many others survived thanks to the “heroic” efforts of emergency medical technicians stationed at the race, as well as countless others who rushed to the aid of the injured, said Stavrakakis, the race announcer.
Stavrakakis and his partners, perched about 70 feet from where the plane smashed to earth, barely escaped harm themselves. Moments after the crash, they transformed from announcers charged with whipping up the crowd to calm voices of reason and reassurance.
They asked doctors, nurses and others with medical backgrounds to assemble at the announcing stand, and suggested that children be moved from the scene. They offered exit routes to spectators who were rattled but unhurt. They urged people to surrender their belts to be used as tourniquets to stanch the bleeding of arms and legs.
“We did our jobs,” Stavrakakis said. “As a race announcer and professional pilot who has lost a lot of friends in various aviation situations, I am always prepared for the worst.”
So, too, is David Norton, an intensive-care physician and air-racing aficionado from Ohio who found himself pressed into service that day.
Norton, an Air Force veteran who directs medical intensive care at the University of Cincinnati Health University Hospital, has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times in recent years. He and his father, Douglas, were enjoying their annual bonding ritual at the races, he said, then the Ghost went down and he was transported back to the war zone.
“All of a sudden you’re looking at body parts, people crying, people screaming,” he said.
“The difference is that when you are working in a combat hospital, you are more prepared for what you are going to see and you have some tools to deal with it,” he said. “Here, I had nothing. All I could think to do was to take belts, put them on limbs and tighten them.”
Norton has replayed those moments in his mind many times since last year, and no doubt will do so again this week.
“My dad and I will be there,” he said.
“We are airplane nuts,” said Norton. “Some people golf or go to football games. We get to watch airplanes fly around for five days. For us, it’s a stress relief and a lot of fun.”
The tragedy of last year’s crash undoubtedly will cloud this year’s races, but probably not for long, he said.
“At first, for a lot of us, it will be a bit of a catharsis, a group-therapy session,” he said.
“I think you’re going to see people happier than ever to see each other,” he said. “We’ll give each other an extra-tight little hug, and then we’ll relax and enjoy the races and one another, and celebrate the fact that we are still here.”