No North-South divide in grief over disaster at Reno air races

You don’t have to drive far in Nevada before you suspect you’re actually traveling through two very different states thrown together against a common will.

On U.S. 95 heading north, it happens somewhere outside Indian Springs. The state gets rural and lonesome in a hurry, and rock-ribbed coyotes outnumber citizens by a wide margin.

But that’s Nevada. Urban Las Vegas and rural cow counties. South and North. Vegas and Reno. Newcomers and Old-timers. Casino towns and mining towns.

Not much seems to bind us these days, and our current economic predicament has only added to the alienation.

The rotten recession and high unemployment have knocked us cold. Add mortgage scandals and the collective knowledge that we rank first among worsts in too many quality of life categories, and you have a state that’s seemingly not fit for young, old, or in between.

Just when you’re almost sure nothing binds us as a people in this battered and care-worn place, a P-51 Mustang called The Galloping Ghost tears a hole in the sky above the City of Trembling Leaves, then plows into spectators at the Reno air races. Journalists use the word "horrific" to describe the carnage that so far has claimed 11 lives and injured dozens in the nation’s worst air race disaster.

It’s easy to scowl about the insane danger inherent at something called an "air race." Indianapolis is deadly, and its pilots can pull off for a pit stop and walk away. The very idea of an air race sounds like an open invitation to tragedy.

Yet, whether through fool’s luck or an actual safety strategy, the Reno air races operated for more than four decades without a single spectator fatality while military air shows around the world racked up deaths by the score.

But the danger has always been there, one mistake away. Including Saturday’s death of Galloping Ghost pilot Jimmy Leeward, the Reno air races have claimed the lives of 20 pilots. Daring men, young and old, all killed seeking thrills in an event that has been a big contributor to Reno’s economy since the Vietnam era.

Their deaths were soon forgotten amid the hype and the collective acknowledgement by participants that, yes, theirs is a dangerous pursuit. Fleeting glory, occasionally gory. Get your tickets early.

But pilots know the risk when they slide into the cockpit. Stunt pilots die.

Pilots, but not spectators. Not until Saturday.

To call for an end to the air races at this point should beg the obvious, but I don’t anticipate a groundswell of support from either end of the state. Although its citizens perhaps lulled themselves into a false sense of security, the event’s planners have long known about the dangers. They have mock mass-casualty emergency drills. They keep the first responders standing by to mop up unforeseen messes.

None of that mitigates the danger, and the scent of high-octane danger is the Reno air races’ reason for being.

Thousands of people crowd in as close as they can to experience the red-line thrills and deafening roar of the souped-up planes as the fly through the gorgeous air above Reno at deadly speeds.

Danger works as a marketing strategy. Always has. But, as you can see, the cleanup can come at a terrible price.

At this point, the experts stare at their shoes. They will focus on details and inanities, such as whether a 74-year-old stunt pilot made an error, or was victimized by his heavily altered World War II-era craft. Maybe they’ll also send funeral flowers to the victims’ families.

The experts have their work cut out for them.

I want to focus on a phenomenon that occurred shortly after the terrible news echoed out of Washoe County.

Everyone I encountered who heard of the tragedy at the Reno air races was staggered and reduced to silence. Nevada felt a piercing pain in its tired heart.

And we grieve for the people of the city of trembling hearts.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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