‘This is something that is burned into our minds’
For the past decade, Brent Wilson has been taking his two sons, Kyle and Ryan, to the Reno Air Races. As a father-son bonding weekend, Brent felt the air races provided the perfect opportunity to teach his boys a bit about United States history while enjoying the high-energy spectacle.
“I love the history—the ability to sit in the crowd next to pilots or mechanics from World War II and be able to visit about the history of aviation,” he said. “We would make sure that we stopped, and we talked to some of these old-time pilots to really understand some of the history of this country. It is a very, very special event in our hearts.”
Though Kyle and Ryan, now 20 and 22 years old, have been attending the air races since they were 10 and 12, they are unsure of whether they will ever want to attend again.
While watching from the grandstands on Sept. 16, Kyle lowered the camera he was using to videotape the races when he noticed that something was wrong with one of the airplanes. The camera continued to record, capturing the crash that ultimately killed 11 and injured many more not far from the area in which the family stood.
“For a brief moment, which seemed like an eternity, we’re looking straight up at this plane, so it’s coming right for our area,” Brent said. “And there’s nothing you can do. I mean, from the moment he pulls up to the moment he crashes is what—six, seven, eight seconds, maybe? So, even if you had your wits about you and you could grab and run, how far can you get in five seconds? Nowhere. You literally just freeze and watch.”
The video continued recording, capturing the immediate reactions of those nearby.
“That could have been us,” said a voice behind the camera.
“I know,” came the stunned reply.
The thought seems to have passed through the minds of many audience members in the moments following the crash.
“Within the first two grandstands, basically, that’s a dartboard, and he’s coming down somewhere in this general vicinity,” Brent recalled. “The question is, where? My first thought is, ‘This is us.’ And it’s a very sobering thought. It really does shake you to your core.”
Now, some time has passed. A memorial was set up along the fence at the Reno-Stead Airport. Members of the community turned out in droves to donate blood to aid local hospitals. A citywide memorial service was held in Idlewild Park on Sept. 25 to honor the victims. Those who witnessed the crash firsthand are attempting to move on, although Brent says, “You close your eyes and you see it. This is something that is burned into our minds and will never go away.”
Now, the community is beginning to raise questions about the crash: Were safety precautions lacking? Should the air races continue? Should new rules be implemented?
The crash was unpredicted and unprecedented—the races are notoriously dangerous, but this is the first accident to involve spectators, although they have claimed the lives of 20 pilots since the races began in 1964. The Federal Aviation Administration heavily regulates the event, taking into account everything from pilot qualification to examinations of the airplanes.
However, no amount of precaution would be able to stop a plane from crashing into spectator seating as it did this year. The only way to ensure that the air races will never take another life is to cancel them permanently, which would anger most fans.
A certain level of risk goes along with attending such an event, and the consensus among air race fans from around the nation is that the tragedy does not reflect poorly upon the security measures.
“Do I think that there’s a safety issue?” Brent asked, and then answered: “I don’t. At all. This is just an unfortunate accident.”
It was a horrific accident, but neither the pilots nor the Reno Air Races are to blame. Perhaps the air races should take a year off out of respect for those who lost their lives, but Reno should not lose this unique event that draws passionate visitors from around the nation.