Fatal Accidents associated with the National Championship Air Races
(also known as the Reno Air Races)
- September 8, 2014: Wesley E. "Lee" Behel, 64, of San Jose, California - A retired Air Force fighter pilot, former Sport Class champion, and longtime Air Race pilot, he was killed during a Sport Class qualifying heat at 3:16 pm. when his experimental Backovich GP-5 'Osprey', registered as N501GP and nicknamed "Sweet Dreams", crashed on the race course after a mechanical failure. A retired Nevada Air National Guard fighter pilot, former Sport Class champion, and longtime Air Race pilot, Behel was one of the founders of the race's Sport Class and its current president. The cause of the accident is currently under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB).
September 16, 2011: James K. "Jimmy" Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Florida - A highly experienced air racer, Hollywood stunt pilot, and owner of the Leeward Air Ranch, he flew a heavily modified North American P-51 'Mustang' racing aircraft, registered as NX79111 and nicknamed "The Galloping Ghost". At 4:15 during an afternoon heat, he was in the third place position. He rounded pylon number 8 when the airplane abruptly pitched up, rolled inverted, stalled, then pitched down. The plane then hit the tarmac in front of the grandstands in an area containing box seating, and disintegrated into a ball of dust and killing ten spectators - Greg Morcom, 47, of Marysville, Washington; Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, Arizona; Regina Bynum, 53, of San Angelo, Texas; Sharon Stewart, 47, of Reno; George Hewitt, 60, and Wendy Hewitt, 56, of Fort Mohave, Arizona; John Craik, 45, of Gardnerville, Nevada; James McMichael, 47, of Graham, Washington; Craig Salerno, 50, of Friendswood, Texas; and Cheryl Elvin, 71, of Lenexa, Kansas - and injuring nearly 70 others. The NTSB found the modifications had made the aircraft lighter and reduced drag, but decreased stability, creating evidence of extreme stress on the airframe - demonstrated by buckling of the fuselage aft of the wing and gaps appearing between the fuselage and the canopy during flight. They concluded the probable cause of the crash were reused single-use locknuts in the left elevator trim tab system that loosened, causing a fatigue crack in an attachment screw and allowed the trim tab to flutter - which caused the trim tab link assembly to fail - exposing the pilot to a force estimated to be around 17Gs - that led to loss of control of the aircraft. This has been the United States' deadliest air race disaster.
September 14th, 2007: Gary Hubler, 52, of Caldwell, Idaho – The champion of the Formula 1 class of the Reno Air Races from 2002 through 2006, he was flying a Tuttle Cassutt IIIM, registered as N11XR and nicknamed “Mariah”, as part of a scattered start, meaning the planes all departed, performed a teardrop pattern, and returned to start the race. Another plane, a Deluca-Owl OR-71, registered as N1VD, was in the lead as the group of airplanes reached the starting pylon. At the first pylon, the Owl entered a left bank as Hubler passed it on the outside and below. In this position, it would have been very difficult for the pilot of the Owl, Jason Somes, to see the Cassutt. Hubler was then ahead of Somes as he continued to bank around the pylon. Then, the Owl and the Cassutt collided just after 9:30 in the morning, and the Cassutt rolled and impacted the ground, killing Hubler. The Owl pitched up and Somes performed an emergency landing on the right side of runway 14. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this collision was the failure of the pilots of both aircraft to maintain an adequate visual lookout and clearance from one another during a low altitude aerial race.
September 13th, 2007: Brad Morehouse, 47, of Aston, Wyoming – Flying a Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-39C, registered as N139DK and nicknamed "Dino Juice," at 2:45 in the afternoon during the Jet class race, he had rounded the last pylon, #8, when according to witnesses, the airplane banked to the left as it rounded the pylon, behind and below another plane (a Rockwell T-2B “Buckeye”), and then rolled to the right and continued rolling, impacting the ground at a high speed along the north side of Runway 8/26. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be Morehouse's encounter with wake turbulence while maneuvering over a race course, and contributing to the accident was the low altitude at which the encounter occurred.
September 11th, 2007: Steve Dari, 52, of Lemon Grove, California - Flying a Rose Peregrine experimental biplane, registered as N13NG, it was just after takeoff on Runway 08 during a test flight, as the airplane reached an altitude of about 80 feet above the runway, the smoke started coming from the lower part of the engine cowling, and the airplane's propeller stopped turning. As the airplane started to descend, Dari appeared to attempt to turn left in order to land on a crossing runway, Runway 32, but during the turn the airplane appeared to stall and descend into the terrain, killing him on impact. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be the over speed of the modified racing engine during takeoff that created an oil mist on the exhaust and smoke, and the pilot's failure to maintain a speed above stall speed (Vs) during his attempted emergency landing. Investigators further determined that, contributing to the accident, was the pilot's diverted attention due to the smoke and the reasonable belief that an in-flight engine compartment fire was occurring.
September 13th, 2002: Tommy Rose, 60, of Hickory, Mississippi – Flying an amateur-built Minkler Venture M20, registered as N360 and nicknamed "Ramblin' Rose,” as the airplane was rounding pylon 1 during the Sports class race, the horizontal stabilizers and elevators began flexing, and then bent down. One witness told investigators that the airplane began a shallow porpoise just before. The airplane then dove into the ground, plowing a 450-foot-long debris field, and a speed of over 330 knots. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be the overload failure of the horizontal stabilizers and elevators due to a pilot induced oscillation at a speed at or above Vne (300 knots), which exceeded the design stress limits of the structure. Also causal was the intentional alteration by an unknown person or persons of the elevator down spring assembly, which likely reduced the stick force per G from a nominal 10 pounds to less than 1, and led to the pilot induced oscillation. An additional cause was the pilot's decision to operate the aircraft at, above, or near never exceed speed .
September 18th, 1999: Gary Levitz, 61, of Grand Prairie, Texas – Flying a North American/Rogers P-51R, registered as N57LR, during the first lap of the Unlimited Gold class heat race (3A) at the Air Races, empennage assembly of the plane separated and the aircraft disintegrated as it made a left turn at the number 1 pylon east of the airport in Lemmon Valley, scattering debris and damaging a house. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be the onset of a flutter event and the resultant separation of the rudder and empennage from the aircraft – the cause of which could not be determined.
September 17th, 1998: Richard “Dick” Roberts, 63, of Maybee, Michigan – Flying a purple, orange and white Hughes-Cassutt 111M2, registered as N94H and nicknamed "Miss Maybe", at the conclusion of an International Formula One (IF1) heat race at the Reno National Championship Air Races, was one of four racers queued for landing. With two planes successfully landing, a third airplane was on final, closing on the airplane ahead, when the pilot elected to do a left 360-degree turn and reenter the landing pattern. The fourth airplane was just turning onto the base leg at this time. Witnesses stated this airplane, flown by Roberts, started a turn to the right and the nose of the airplane went up, then immediately rolled, and entered a nearly vertical, rolling dive, crashing into the desert back yard of a residence. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be Roberts' failure to maintain an adequate airspeed margin while maneuvering in gusty wind conditions, which led to an inadvertent stall/spin at low altitude.
September 12th, 1994: William “Bill” Speer, 48, of La Mesa, California – Flying a North American P-51D, registered as N51U, the pilot collided with level terrain while approaching runway 8 at the Reno-Stead Airport during the in qualification heats at 1:17 in the afternoon. According to race control authorities, Speer pulled up off the race course and transmitted a "Mayday" distress call, and indicated the airplane's windscreen was covered with oil and he could not see. Another race pilot was maneuvering his airplane to join Speer's airplane and planned to assist the accident pilot land on the runway, and noticed that Speer's airplane was right of the runway extended center-line, and directed him to turn left. Then, the plane's rate of descent "increase sharply,” and proceeded to collide with the ground in a "20-25 degree" nose-down attitude, and broke apart on impact. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be Speer's failure to maintain aircraft control during an attempted forced landing, and contributing factors were the failure of a propeller blade-feathering oil seal which leaked oil on the windshield, obscuring the pilot's vision.
September 18th, 1994: Ralph J. Twombly, 70, of Wellsville, New York – Flying a North American SNJ-5, registered as N8540Z and nicknamed “Mis Behavin", Twombly overtook another plane, a North American SNJ-4, registered as N7404C and flown by Jerry McDonald, and struck its right wing from below at the start of the consolation race about 2 miles west of the airport. Twombly's plane entered an uncontrolled descent, the empennage separated, and the left wing folded, causing the plane to cartwheel and spin until it collided with the garage of a nearby home, while the other plane safely returned to the field. Another race pilot told investigators that the airplanes were to be lined up abreast of each other at the beginning of the race, but Twombly's moved out of position before the airplanes reached the visible staging area. When the airplanes reached the staging area, Twombly appeared to move back into position, but the pilot over-corrected the alignment and struck N7404C. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be that Twombly misjudged the distance between his and the other airplane, and that his diverted attention to the start of the air race is a factor in this accident.
September 14th 1993: Rick Brickert, 38, of Sandy, Utah - A former champion flying a Scaled Composites 158-8, registered as N221BP and nicknamed “Pond Racer”, he crashed at 4:42 in the afternoon during an off-airport emergency landing in the desert at Lemmon Valley, Nevada during the Unlimited trials. Brickert had just requested the timing clock between pylons number five and six when he abruptly initiated a pull up and stated that he was leaving the course. He then advised his pit crew that he had a little problem with the right engine, and the tower advised Brickert that he was trailing smoke. As Brickert was maneuvering east bound at the apex of his climb in the vicinity of the home pylon abeam the numbers/north of Runway 26 , a puff of smoke about the size of the aircraft was observed from the area of the right engine. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this crash to be oil starvation and connecting rod failure in the right engine, and a resultant fuel fed fire.
September 15th 1989: Errol Roberson, 49, of Warrenton, Oregon - Flying a Miller Special JM-2 “Formula One”, registered as N74M and nicknamed "Puffin", at a speed of over 250 miles per hour, he crashed after being caught in a dust devil during the Friday race. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the plane's structural failure when design stress limits were exceeded after encountering this hazardous meteorological condition.
September 15th 1987: Errol Johnstad, 48, of West Berlin, East Germany - Flying a Mercer Owl Racer 65-2 “Formula One”, registered as N5JG and nicknamed "Harvey's Wallbanger", crashed from an altitude of 40 feet during the fourth lap of a practice flight at 2:30 pm. A witness told investigators that the pilot made an abrupt left turn, while maneuvering to land, then the plane “appeared to stall, snap roll to the right and dive vertically into the ground.” The NTSB was unable to determine the probable cause of the mishap.
September 16th 1981: Bob Downey, 64, of Whittier, California - Flying a La Lee W-18 “Formula One”, registered as N28LL and nicknamed "Falcon" , crashed west of the airport 300 yards from homes in the Silver Knolls area during practicing at 8:15 in the morning. The NTSB was unable to determine the probable cause of the mishap, though some suspect an airplane malfunction or a health problem with the pilot was on what one official called a “radical diet.” But a witness stated that he heard the aircraft backfire twice, and then dive at a 45 degree angle into the ground.
September 14th, 1979: Fred Wofford, 41, of Reno, Nevada - Flying a Schultz SL-1 midget racer, registered as N9SL and nicknamed “Proud Bird”, he crashed at the pylon #1 turn during the International Formula Midget preliminary heat race. The crash was a mile from the grandstands and was not seen by several pilots in the heat. The NTSB found the probable cause of this accident to be attributed to vortex turbulence.
September 16th 1978: Dr. Dimitry V. Prian, 40, of Long Beach, California, and Don DeWalt, 40, of El Monte, California - Prian, flying North American SNJ-4, registered as N7038C and nicknamed “The Fertile Turtle”, and DeWalt, flying North American AT-6, registered as N74DW and nicknamed “Exorcist Jr.”, collided at 2:36 in the afternoon at one of the race's pylons. The NTSB found the probable cause of this collision to be both pilots' misjudgment of their clearance from one another.
September 12th, 1975: Marland D. Washburn, 40, of Houston, Texas – with over 12,100 hours of flight experience, and flying a red & white North American AT-6, registered as N612MD, he clipped the top of pylon #1 with his left wing and crashed, killing himself and destroying the plane, while in a tight formation at the start of the race at 1:20 in the afternoon. The NTSB found the probable cause of this accident to the pilot-in-command's misjudgment of clearance from the pylon
September 12th, 1975: Gordon McCollom, 25, of Costa Mesa, California – Occurring fifteen minutes after the crash of Washburn's AT-6, McCollom, a professional gymnast and wing-walker, was hanging under a modified "Super" Stearman PT-17, registered as N121R and piloted by Joe Hughes, to cut a ribbon near the ground. Suddenly, the Super Stearman dropped too close to the runway in what one official called a “freakish downdraft,” and the plane's tail hit the ground, and causing McCollom to scrape the top of his head on the concrete runway during the finale of his performance, killing him instantly. The Stearman's rudder ripped off before Hughes could climb again, roll upright, and land the airplane. The NTSB found the probable cause of this accident to the pilot-in-command's misjudgment of clearance from the ground, but unfavorable wind conditions contributed to mishap.
September 17th, 1972: Herman E. “Tommy” Thomas, 50, of Sacramento, California – flying his self-built BTS biplane, registered as N70TT and nicknamed “Mis' Q” crashed during a race at 11:45 in the morning. The high-powered racer was on the first lap of an eight-lap race when it fell from a group of racers. The plane was observed to be wings level, with a slight nose down attitude, and suddenly pitched over to a near-vertical position, and slammed to the ground at 150 mph, killed Thomas. The NTSB was unable to determine the probable cause of the mishap.