I was in attendance at the National Championship Air Races last week in Reno and was watching the heat race that ended in tragedy. I am an avid fan of the sport and was on hand for the entire event since the beginning of qualifying on Monday.
When the crash took place my attention was on another part of the course, but I immediately knew that something had gone terribly wrong. It was moments later that I realized how bad it was—that spectators had been in the path of the destruction. Emergency personnel were quick to respond, and the crowd (much to its credit) heeded instructions to calmly exit the area.
The men and women who race airplanes are well aware of the dangers involved in their sport. There have been race-related fatal crashes in the past, but until last Friday there has never been a spectator fatality at Reno. In the past week, there have been plenty of armchair aviators making pronouncements about what went wrong. The truth is that no one is sure what went wrong, even with all the photographic and eyewitness accounts that exist. The answer lies in the investigation now in progress.
I do hope that those unfamiliar with air racing do not unjustly villianize the sport out of hand and will consider that, however terrible the result, it was an accident. The Reno Air Racing Association has a very strict and successful system of safety; the pilots that race are some of the best aviators in the world. The planes they fly are painstakingly maintained by experts and participants are trained and certified by the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA). The course they fly is spread wide across the desert with a relatively small area occupied by spectators. The Reno Air Races are a great event cherished by tens of thousands every year. It would be a shame if it were lost due to this tragic accident.
The task at hand right now is to ascertain the facts and cause of the crash and to assist those who have been affected by this tragedy. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and RARA are doing just that. In the meantime, I hope for cool heads to prevail.
Terry Fautley has attended the Reno Air Races for the past 10 years. He lives in Santa Rosa.