Daring stunts highlight first day of Aviation Nation air show

Spectators watched a safe and flawless performance at the Aviation Nation air show at Nellis Air Force Base on Saturday with little concern of a repeat of the tragedy at the Reno air races.

On Sept. 16, a souped-up World War II-vintage P-51 Mustang nose-dived into the crowd at the Reno-Stead Airport, killing 74-year-old pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators.

"When it's your time, it's your time," said Joe Languemi, of North Las Vegas, who was sitting in the Nellis stands near the announcer's platform watching the air show with his wife, Pat.

Like a half dozen other spectators who were interviewed while military aircraft performed daring stunts in a crisp azure sky, Languemi said he had no safety concerns whatsoever.

"This is a controlled environ­ment," he said, noting the difference between what Air Force officials have described as an "unscripted, dynamic competition" of the Reno air races versus the "choreographed, highly rehearsed aerial demonstrations" performed during Aviation Nation.

The difference in the two events, according to officials at the Nellis base, is that the annual air show and open house at Nellis is akin to a figure-skating performance instead of a short-track speed skating contest as would be the case of the National Championship Air Races in Reno.

At the two-day Aviation Nation event, which drew a total of 142,000 spectators for both days last year, aircraft fly within an "aerial box" cleared as a boundary between performers and spectators. Regulations dictate that aircraft can't fly directly at the audience during the demonstration.

Air Force regulations also outlaw air races by fixed wing, rotary wing aircraft or hot air balloons.

Languemi's friend, John Hinsvark, of Anchorage, Alaska, said the deadly crash in Reno didn't stop him from watching Saturday's Aviation Nation show at Nellis.

"Accidents happen. That's why they call them accidents," said Hinsvark, who was visiting Reno on Sept. 16 and thought about going to the air races that day but didn't because his sister and her husband had other plans.

"It's a shame," said Hinsvark, a retired Army National Guard soldier. "It looks like the Reno air races won't go on again."

Not all of the tens of thousands of Aviation Nation spectators at the Nellis show on Saturday were as unconcerned as Hinsvark and Languemi.

"I was worried a little bit when the Patriots flew at each other," said Becky Gelderloos, of Las Vegas, an Air Force wife who watched the show with her son, Tanner Ballard, and his girlfriend Candice Leigh.

She was referring to the Patriots Jet Team, a group of talented pilots flying L-39 jets. The team was founded by former United Airlines and Reno air race pilot Randy "Howler" Howell.

Nevertheless, Gelderloos said, "I feel safe here because I know these men and women know what they're doing."

Similarly, Trina Youngblood, of Ely, said she felt safe standing on the Nellis ramp with her family.

"The one in Reno was more air races. This is all military," she said. "I think they are more regulated by our government."

She said going to the Aviation Nation event gives her a sense of safety and pride for the armed forces.

Aviation Nation, which has free admission, continues today.

Parking lots at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will open at 8 a.m. with bus transportation to the base and gates open at 9 a.m. The show, with this year's theme marking 70 years of air power in Las Vegas, begins at 11 a.m. and runs until after 2 p.m. when the Thunderbirds, led by Lt. Col. Case Cunningham, take off in their red, white and blue F-16 Fighting Falcon jets for the grand finale.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.