Two planes collided Sunday while attempting to land following the last race of the day at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Both pilots were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted it would investigate why the World War 2 era airplanes – two different versions of the T6 trainer – collided as the pilots were landing.
Fred Telling, chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association told a reporter, “I am completely devastated and heartbroken today.”
Pilots Nick Macky and Chris Rushing had just completed the difficult phase of the Gold race for the T6 airplanes, which includes flying steep banks as the pilots maneuver around pylons. Scott Miller, an aviation lecturer at San Jose State University and a flight instructor, told a reporter in LA that relative to that, landing would have been low-stress. Still, maintaining heightened awareness after successfully completing a challenging performance can be a challenge in itself.
There’s a reason emergency room doctors refer to the “last run of the day,” as the injury magic hour. Most performance-based injuries happen then and are a combination of fatigue that is both physical and mental.
When it comes to air racing, however, the list of injuries at the Reno Air Races is blue ribbon in itself. A list prepared by the Reno Gazette Journal in 2022 shows that over its 59 years of adrenaline-fueled flying, the races have seen 22 fatal accidents that killed 32 people including pilots, spectators and a wing walker. The fatalities grew by two on Sunday and now, could include the event itself.
As happened after earlier crashes, much defending of the sport is sure to follow. Mr. Miller told a California television station that not just any pilot can get into the competition. Pilots are carefully screened and trained. The races will continue for years to come, he added optimistically, “as long as we continue to do it safely.” But really, do the statistics indicate previous safe operations?
In 2012, when the NTSB held a hearing to discuss the previous year’s race accident that sent airplane debris into the spectator stands killing 10 and the pilot, air show pilot Sean Tucker testified to the board members with his characteristic bluntness. In a demonstration of courage and cojones, he was alone among air show performers in saying that all ain’t right in the world of performance aviation, as I reported for The New York Times.
Despite the boosterism, and promises that safety is a top priority, it is abundantly obvious that is not true or those souped-up planes and hot-shot pilots would be safely on the ground. Thrill-seeking is the number one priority for the performers and for the spectators.
In Reno, some folks said enough was enough which is why the 59th annual championship that ended tragically on Sunday was literally the last race of the day for the city. Reno-Stead Airport reportedly told the organizers it could no longer afford the insurance required to host the event. Other airports were reportedly wooing the race to their communities.
Pilots Chris Rushing and Nick Macy were said to have been highly experienced, careful, and conscientious pilots. They died on their last run of the day. Whether that is a metaphor for the competition itself remains to be seen.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.