“Nope, sorry, I didn’t think of you, or the family. Come to think of it, my life didn’t flash before my eyes either. There wasn’t time.” So went the conversation with my sister. Prior to that conversation, neither of us had ever really faced death. We have in the form of losing loved ones, but I’m talking about the potential for a sudden, violent end.
On September 16, 2011, I was doing what I always do around that time of year. Also doing his thing was Jimmy Leeward, an accomplished stunt and air racing pilot. He was racing, and I was watching through a camera viewfinder. Then, within the scope of perhaps eight or nine seconds, our worlds came violently together.
Jimmy was flying a modified P-51 Mustang, “The Galloping Ghost,” at the National Championship Air Races, in Reno Nevada. I go there every year to watch pilots, equipped with both incredible nerve and skill, race around an eight mile oval course at speeds approaching 500 miles per hour. They do this at altitudes as low as 50 feet above the desert floor. Some would fly lower, but nowadays they penalize you for “low flying.”
On this particular Friday, the Ghost had just taken third place from an F8F Bearcat, Rare Bear, and was showing some serious speed. Ahead was a pair of equally very fast Mustangs. Coming out of the final turn, the Ghost suddenly rolled a little to the left, then pitched up sharply. Over the next few seconds it climbed, rolled to the right and turned right toward the grandstands. The rest you may have seen in the news.
In the immediate aftermath of what turned out to be a horrific accident, I wrote an account of the experience. Although intended to inform friends and coworkers, it wound up all over the web. What was a necessary exercise at mental unburdening, turned out to be extremely helpful both to those who were there, and folks who weren’t, but were none the less deeply affected by the tragedy.
Leeward’s plane hit the ground between two rows of box seats, about 50 feet from where I sat. Having watched the plane coming, my final act was to slide from my chair to the ground, turn my back, and close my eyes. The mental math said while he wouldn’t hit me directly, the debris and fireball would probably do the job. I waited, probably less than a second, to be hit.
In the event, there was no fiery explosion. The fact you’re reading this now is evidence I came out alive. I’m still trying to understand how the seating box to my immediate left was completely wiped out, folks to my right and behind suffered varying degrees of serious injury wherein they had to call a personal injury attorney or personal injury lawyer, and yet my hosts and I walked away. It’s as if someone drew a chalk line around half a dozen chairs and said leave these ones alone.
The upshot of all this is, while I’m about as back to normal (whatever that means for a goof like me) as one can be, there is now a fundamental difference in my psyche. My stock in trade with the written word has always had a basis in humor. For the moment at least, the humor is gone. I’m cracking jokes, and laughing at funny things, but the written form is missing.
I hope it comes back. However, for this round at least, you’ll have to bear with me as I unload on all of you good people. If you’re interested, the full account lives at ignomini.com/aviation/Reno_2011/Jimmy_Leeward_Crash_2011.html. I’m sorry there’s no live link on a printed page. The underlines in the web address are made with Shift-Dash on the keyboard. Also, it’s my personal web site, so it should be mentioned any statements or opinions there are my own, and do not in any way represent the official positions or policies of Moss Motors.
By Robert Goldman