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Reno air races fans struggle with horrors of crash

As the death toll climbs to nine, survivors recount 'hellish' scenes, narrow escapes and worries about the fate of a beloved aviation event.

September 18, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • The grounds of the Reno Air Races are scattered with debris where pilot Jimmy Leeward crashed his plane Friday. In the middle is a crater that authorities say is 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep where the plane hit.
The grounds of the Reno Air Races are scattered with debris where pilot Jimmy… (Marilyn Newton, AP Photo )

Reporting from Reno

The noise was "hellish," a "big crunch," followed by stunned silence and then screams. The smell was acrid, spilled aviation fuel and burnt oil. And the sight was enough to keep Gerald Lent awake for more than 24 hours:

The massive plane falling from the sky directly toward him. The cloud of shattered tarmac and razor-sharp shrapnel. The body parts. The first responders. The dazed survivors at a storied air show that careened from festive to deadly in seconds.

Photos: Reno air-show crash kills 9

On what should have been Day 4 of the National Championship Air Races in Reno, federal investigators arrived Saturday to start piecing together what brought the Galloping Ghost — a World War II plane with a flashy pilot in a much-anticipated race — to earth in violent fashion. The crash killed seven people on the tarmac, including the pilot, and two more died later at the hospital. Dozens were wounded.

Before Friday's disaster, the event had claimed the lives of 19 pilots since 1972, but never a spectator. As the death toll from the Friday crash rose and suspicion fell on a missing piece from the plane's tail, survivors grappled with opposing emotions. Many worried about the future of a beloved aviation event, even as they were haunted by images of graphic horror they likened to a battlefield or a terrorist attack.

"People were looking for relatives and their personal goods," Lent, a retired optometrist, recounted Saturday, still sounding shocked. "These guys were trying to pick up this leg. Legs are heavy. They tried to put it on a gurney. They couldn't. This gal in the bleacher was … screaming about a foot, but her feet were OK. We didn't see the foot until later. It was in the bleachers."

Friday at Reno-Stead Airport, where the suburbs give way to sagebrush-covered hills, started calm and festive. American flags fluttered atop grandstands. Vendors pitched kettle corn and lemonade. Banners touted downtown casinos where aviation buffs could place bets on the races.

Early in the day, Joshua Cross, an 18-year-old from Pomona, bought a red T-shirt with a picture of the plane he was most excited to see: the Galloping Ghost. The college freshman's father is a private pilot, and he's been coming to the Reno races since 2007. He especially loves the souped-up vintage planes.

"You see the planes race, and you love them," he said.

At last year's races, he recounted, the Galloping Ghost, piloted by the colorful Jimmy Leeward, tore past the competition in its first race and walloped the rest of the field in its second. It was supposed to compete against some of the event's fastest aircraft in its third, but weather got in the way, and the race was canceled. This year, Cross was rooting for the Galloping Ghost to soar past Strega, a repeat event winner.

"Now I can't believe that plane almost killed me," he said Saturday.

During Friday's race, Strega was in the lead, Cross recalled. Voodoo was second. The Galloping Ghost, or plane No. 177, was next. The planes whipped around a turn and then started blasting down a straightaway at speeds of at least 400 mph. Suddenly, the Galloping Ghost pulled up.

Pilots normally pull up when they're in trouble, flying skyward and away from the competition. The higher the altitude, the more options that pilots have for maneuvering, but they usually do it in a much smoother manner than Leeward did, said Gerald DeRego, a retired Air Force pilot, who was sitting in the box seats Friday.

The 63-year-old from Penn Valley, Calif., has been coming to the Reno races for the last 15 years, and he knew something was terribly wrong. The Ghost reached its apex and started to roll. To the untrained eye, the roll resembled an aerobatic move called a Split S. But to DeRego, the pilot had lost "elevator authority" and therefore control of the plane.

"As soon as he rolled, I knew he was going to hit the crowd somewhere," he said. "Clearly at that point there was no possible way he was going to survive that."

DeRego's mind raced. "I could see the airplane coming. He was in a steep dive. I thought, 'Is he going to hit before us, on us or after us?'" He got up to run with the others around him, knocking down chairs in their path.

As the nose came down at a steep angle, the plane rotated a bit, enough to likely spare a number of onlookers, he said. But it still slammed into an area about 100 to 150 feet away from DeRego. The shock wave knocked DeRego down. He landed on another spectator. And then, he said, he started crawling, "like a lizard on a hot rock."

Optometrist Lent, 72, was watching the race from the bleachers behind the box seats, about 10 feet above the ground. When the plane headed his way, he jumped off the bleachers, twisting an ankle. When he looked up, he said, he saw a big black cloud, and debris was flying into the bleachers "like bullets over your head."

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