Reno Air Racing: Thunder mustang Update!

Air Racing: An Editorial

Editor's note: I began writing this, one week after the events at Reno '99. I felt I needed to say, something, about what I was feeling at the time. I read it the next day and decided not to publish it... Tonight, I found it, re-read it, then decided to go ahead and publish it. I sincerely hope it is taken in the spirit it was written in.

I grew up in Reno, Nevada, not too very long after World War II. Though the jet era was well underway, those of us enamored with aviation still drew profiles on our school notebooks of the P-51 and other prop fighters from the war we just missed living through. When the Reno National Championship Air Races began in 1964, I lived beside the road leading out to Sky Ranch, the site of the first Reno Air Race. Word quickly spread at my school... There were fighters out at Reno Municipal Airport! A ride to the Reno Airport on our bicycles, rewarded us with a view of what was the holy grail of aviation in our young minds.... The P-51, Mustang. With the thought of seeing these airplanes in action during that first Reno Air Race, a couple of young boys set out on that road to Sky Ranch. Armed with strong, 13 year old legs, eager to get there, but lacking sense enough to bring water or food for the long ride out to the site of the races.We gave up the quest somewhat short of our goal... I missed that first race by several miles. Close enough to see Sky Ranch, the glint of the many parked cars and the airplanes going round the pylons in the distance beckoned... but alas.... There was school the next day... disappointed, tired and thirsty... we gave up, turned around and went home.

I lived in Reno for many years after missing that first race, but chasing girls, making music and just being a teenager, doing what most teenagers do, became more important than seeing airplanes go fast around pylons out on the hot desert... I never managed to get out to see the races while growing up in Air Racing's back yard. Many years after I left Reno, I finally had the money and time to get to the races.... It was 1979. Far past my girl chasing, hell raising and music making days. I was again enamored with World War II Fighters and thrilled to finally be there, experiencing what I'd missed so many years before. I sat in complete awe of the speed and sound I was a part of that day in 1979, and yes, you are a part of all of this when at Reno. The sights and sounds of air racing are nearly overwhelming in their intensity. Without trying, you become a part of what you see and hear. For hours, my brother, father and all the male members of the my clan soaked in our first Air Race... I was in heaven!

Finally, the culmination, what we had come to see....the Gold Unlimited race was set to go...... A furious battle ensued, between Steve Hinton, flying the very impressive "Red Baron" and John Crocker, flying an equally impressive P-51.... "Sumptin' Else".... Lap after lap, Hinton chased Crocker... Then on the white flag lap, Hinton flew by trailing a stream of vapor.... Lacking any base of experience viewing this sport, I had no idea what I would see in the next 90 seconds. Hinton hung in behind Crocker. Despite his problems, he would not give up his second place position. Flying by at the completion of the last lap, disaster struck Hinton in the beautiful Red P-51 with the huge Michelob letters down her flanks. Prop governor failure put all six blades of the Red Baron's contra-rotating prop assembly into flat pitch. Six blades, only moments earlier providing thrust to move the racer forward, now a huge air brake slowing the airplane. Hinton called a mayday. (actually, a somewhat more descriptive "I'm in deep shit") Steve pulled up, trading his airspeed for altitude and safety, hoping for time to deal with the problem. But he was not safe, he had no time.... He would not make the runway. Steve Hinton's young life was about to end. Many thousand breaths were missed, as all watching, attempted to will Steve Hinton the ability to make it back to the runway and and the arms of his waiting fiancee, Karen. Hinton's softly spoken last radio call: "tell Karen I love her".... A completely helpless feeling comes over you as you witness a young man struggle for his life. A feeling replaced by shock and disbelief when he drops out of site below the bluff on the west end of the field and the fireball and cloud of black smoke erupt from just ahead of where you last saw him. I will never forget the race announcer breaking the stunned silence... "Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to announce that the pilot has lost his life" --To this day, I can hear those words.--

I remember sitting there, completely stunned by what I'd just seen, when, as if by some pre-programmed direction, the crowd stood as one and began to leave the field. I remember well what I felt that day...... Shock, disbelief.... and guilt. Yes, guilt. I had taken part in a man's death... I was guilty by association and it felt like hell!

This story had a happy ending. The announcer had been premature in his assumption. Hinton was, and is, a very skilled and lucky aviator. He survived to race again. (Hinton flies the pace jet for the races today)

Twenty years later, thousands of fans watched again as the Gold Unlimiteds came around the pylons, including another man who watched that event long ago. Twenty years earlier, completely in love with the sound of the Griffon engine and the twin, contra-rotating propellers they turn, the seeds of a dream were planted in the mind of a young Bill Rogers. A dream he and others labored for many years to realize. A dream about to end before his eyes. In one horrible instant, Gary Levitz, and the most beautiful airplane I've ever seen, were no more. I was spared watching this time. Fate, and a missed press bus, kept me from the pylon closest to where the crash would happen. It would not spare me the grief of losing someone I knew, or the grief of feeling what my friends who built this dream to reality were feeling. "airplane down" was the call at Pylon 8 as the photographers and reporters around me turned to see who had gone in. "Who was it?" was the big question.... "Levitz" came the reply. I searched the field to see if this was true. Gone was the familiar red and white shape I'd grown to love.... It was true, and one quick look at the widespread path of the wreckage, told me it had not been survivable.

In the stands that day at Stead, many thousands were now feeling the same things I had experienced twenty years earlier. Shock, disbelief and that worst one... Guilt.

Two and a half years ago, I was lucky enough to become one of the fortunate few allowed to photograph and write about what we see and feel at the races. Perhaps even better, during the off-season between them, writing about the great people who make this sport happen. In my years attending Reno, I have been witness to some bad crashes. It does happen. Pushing to the limit has its risks. Sometime after I started doing this, I had the chilling thought, likely, someday, I'd have to report on the loss of someone I knew.... I tend to put thoughts like this into a denial position in my mind.... It would simply never happen. Now it had happened and to someone I knew well. Someone I'd had one of my first interviews with, when I started in this business. Someone I'd followed closely during his time flying an airplane I knew even better... An airplane I'd been allowed to become so close to.

I have to admit to taking this loss very poorly for the hardened journalist I'm supposed to be, but am not. I've taken a week to assess my feelings on what has happened. I've talked with other journalists and photographers. I've talked with friends on the team who suffered this loss. I've received many email messages from fans, shocked by what they have seen. Fans who struggled with the same feelings I had twenty years ago. Fans who's first thoughts were to leave Air Racing behind. I decided it was time to say what I can about this sport and this loss.

Without an ounce of doubt, I can say that this pilot, now flying eternal blue skies, would be the first to say, "Gentlemen... You Still Have A Race!" Since I began writing about this sport, I have struggled with how to convey my thoughts on what Air Racing means. What brings about the dedication to challenge the air around the high desert pylons of Reno. There is a passion here, a competitive passion. A passion to do better than one's opponent. But it is a passion ruled by a very high level of sportsmanship and fair play. Teams who do nearly anything to best a competitor doing well, work tirelessly to help that same competitor, if he or she has trouble. Spare engines are loaned. Propellers are removed from one airplane and placed on another. So many parts are loaned, airplanes arriving at Reno painted one team's color, can become colorful representations of the entire racing field. Men and women, already tired from weeks of preparation, stay late into the night to help their opponent. Besting another racer in the pit is not the spirit of Reno, on the course is where the competition begins.

There is more to this than simple competition. And this is the part most hard to put into words. These airplanes are art. Sleek, flowing, beautiful, machinery art. For the most part, the lines of today's race plane were conceived many years ago. The basic shape needed to challenge the wind is the same today as it was then. There was a spirit during the era most race planes were created, a singleness of purpose. Somehow, that spirit seems to live on within these airplanes originally created to protect our way of life. It infects everyone who comes in contact with them. Machines are simply machines, are they not? Can an assembly of metal, tubing, wire, cable rubber and glass be anything more than a machine? Can a man become one with a machine and have his spirit and the machine meld into one being? I think so.

I will close this story, begun late last night, one week to the day after losing Gary and his beloved partner, Miss Ashley II, with one simple message. Do not mourn for this loss of man and machine. Celebrate it. Celebrate the courage and determination to succeed shared by all who participate in this fastest motorsport. Gary Levitz loved his airplane, loved flying it, loved getting ever closer to the goal of winning. Make no mistake, there is danger in this sport.... so to is there danger in going to the store, taking a shower, walking across the street. We humans are fragile, the very act of eating can take us. Will we stop walking across the street after eating the food we bought at the store, clean from taking a hot shower... Hell no. I've struggled with the need to write my feelings about last week since losing this part of my life. Just as I know thousands of fans are struggling with their feelings of having been a part of a terrible accident.

One of my first thoughts after learning what had happened behind my back, thankfully, out of my line of sight, was to shut down aafo.com. I wanted no further part in all of this. I shut off my camera and stopped shooting.... I could not watch the rest of the race. Now, one week later, I am feeling released from that feeling. Life goes on, so to will the celebration of courage and determination that is Reno. Air Racing is a very special form of motorsport. One steeped in history and tradition. Largely undiscovered by most people, even dedicated fans of motorsport, it will live on as the worlds fastest motorsport. But it is much more than a sport. It is a celebration of life and all that goes with it. It is a celebration of man's determination to push his limits and the vehicles he creates to do this. We will continue to play our part in bringing you the stories behind this wonderful human endeavor.

-Wayne Sagar-

"Blue Skies Forever, Gary"

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