(Fred Weinberg/The Penny Press) – I’ve had a long relationship with aviation and, while the news last week from the National Championship Air Races in Reno was terrible, to put a point on it, I would fly on that course in a P51 tomorrow. And, had I not been involved in building our new studios in Elko, I would have probably been at Stead Airfield shooting Jimmy Leeward’s flight.
Dale Earnhardt and Jimmy Leeward had something in common.
They both died doing something they loved.
Leeward was 74 when he strapped on a highly modified P-51 Mustang in Reno last week, lost control during the third lap and augured into the ground near a VIP seating area, killing himself and seven others and injuring about 53 more. His last act was to avoid a crowded grandstand and the deaths of hundreds.
Earnhardt, of course, was the stuff legends are made of when he hit the wall in the 2001 Daytona 500 and left us far too soon.
You don’t drive a Cup car in NASCAR or fly the heavy metal in air races unless you fully understand that things break, accidents happen and no matter how good you are at what you do, there is always a chance you will die in the process.
That’s a universal truism for anybody in a business where you can do everything BUT engineer the danger out of it.
Frankly, that’s one of the reasons people like Earnhardt and Leeward climb into these machines and make them perform at the far edge of their capabilities.
People get killed at high school football games, junior hockey games and minor league baseball games. Air races have no monopoly on fan danger. We’ve been very careful over the years and very lucky.
That luck went away last week, but it is not a reason to end an event which is going to be held somewhere if not in Northern Nevada. Because, like auto racing, the date of the first air race was the day they flew the second airplane.
You simply cannot make every activity in which people engage completely safe.
And if that’s the standard than even crossing the street with a green light is out of the question.
If you wander through life worrying about a plane dropping out of the sky and killing you, than you probably don’t have much of a life.
All of that said, we need to find out exactly what happened and see what we can do—if it hasn’t already been done—about engineering as much of the risk as possible out of the process.
When Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR went on a safety jihad which not only did not hurt the sport but actually achieved much of the intended result.
If that’s possible in big-time air racing, then the sponsoring organizations should do the same thing, realizing that the third dimension of flight is much more of a challenge than auto racing.
But not hold the races? Kill off an event which annually shows off the best we have to offer in a business we invented at Kitty Hawk?
You must be smoking crack.
When men and women stop measuring themselves against the laws of physics and risk, we will be living in a very dull society indeed.
I hope that the 2012 National Championship Air Races learn from what happened here and either are already scheduled or will be shortly at Stead Airfield.
Because I can guarantee you one thing.
If Northern Nevada doesn’t host them, somebody will.