STEAD — Given the tragic crash that killed a race pilot and 10 spectators two years ago, aviation legend Bob Hoover didn’t expect there would be a 50th annual Reno National Championship Air Races.
But the 91-year-old former U.S. military test pilot and famous acrobatic stunt flyer who befriended Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager in his career admits he’s been surprised many times since his Mark V Spitfire was shot down off the coast of Southern France during World War II.
The Tennessee native who spent 16 months in a German prison camp before stealing a plane and flying to freedom under fire from allied troops who mistook him for the enemy will be honored this week at the 50th installment of the Reno air races.
“I did not believe for one minute that we would be here now,” Hoover said on the eve of the five-day event that features flight demonstrations, stunts and high-speed races in which specially modified planes fly at more than 500 mph wing tip to wing tip barely 100 feet above the tarmac.
Four years after his dramatic 1945 escape from Nazi Germany, Hoover was sitting on the roof of a hangar on Labor Day weekend in Ohio watching what would be the last National Air Racing Championships at Cleveland Municipal Airport when he saw pilot Bill Odom lose control of a P-51 Mustang, veer off course and into a home, killing him and two others on the ground.
“The plane snapped and went into a house and that ended the Cleveland Air Races,” Hoover said.
He had the same sinking feeling two years ago when he witnessed another vintage P-51 slam into the apron of the grandstand at Reno-Stead Airport, killing longtime Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 people on the ground and seriously injuring scores more.
“We all watched the whole thing as it happened, just appalled at what we were seeing — just devastating,” said Hoover, who was in a golf cart near the carnage on the tarmac. “It was the worst situation I’ve ever seen outside the war years.”
Hoover said he’s overjoyed that the racing community rallied to support the continuation of the Reno races that began in 1964 and are now host to the only competition of its kind with multiple aircraft classes, including the fastest jets and fighters.
Race organizers are embracing the 50th year as they try to put the tragedy behind. Hoover, listed by the Smithsonian Institution as one of the 10 greatest contributors to aviation history, Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher and retired astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson are among those being honored Saturday night during a “Mavericks and Legends” fundraising dinner.
It’s part of an effort to ensure the future of an event that looked like a longshot before race officials satisfied the Federal Aviation Administration with added safety precautions last year, and persuaded state tourism officials to pony up sponsorship money to cover a doubling of insurance costs.
“It was important to get last year’s event under our belts, part of a healing process,” said Mike Houhgton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association.
“This year there is such a positive vibe about being the 50th — the last air race in the entire world and to have 50 is really a monumental event,” he said, adding that about 10 percent of attendees now come from overseas.
Swiss watchmaker Breitling agreed in May to spend $1.2 million on a three-year title sponsorship. The air show running through Sunday will feature Breitling’s “JetMan,” Yves Rossy of Switzerland, who first gained fame crossing the English Channel in 2008 soaring through the air at over 150 mph with only his carbon-Kevlar jet wing and four engines.
It’s a far cry from the inaugural races that attracted only the most die-hard enthusiasts to Nevada just two years after John Glenn became the first American to circle the Earth in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft.
“What I recall is flying off a dirt strip,” said Darryl Greenamyer, who won his first heat in a Bearcat at the first Reno races before he eventually was disqualified.
Because the Bearcats were having trouble with the dirt landing area, they were allowed to take off from Reno Tahoe-International Airport before joining other competitors circling the field ready for the start. But the rules required even the Bearcats to land on the strip at Stead.
“I took off to fly over to the dirt strip and I actually touched down but it looked to me like it was too dangerous,” Greenamyer recalls. “I went around and went back (to Reno). That was the end of my 1964 experience.”
Greenamyer said he was “a little surprised” the event continued after the 2011 deaths, which marked the 20th time a pilot was killed in the competition but the first involving victims on the ground.
“It was a tragedy,” he said. “But any kind of racing, automobiles or air racing, they have accidents and people get killed. You’ve got to get over it.”
Houghton expects as many as 75,000 people to visit the 2013 competition through Sunday, for a weeklong, overall attendance of 200,000 compared to about 190,000 last year.
Hoover admits he never thought the competition would get off the ground when Bill Stead — a World War II flying ace, wealthy Nevada rancher and hydroplane champion — first approached him about trying to help persuade casino mogul Bill Harrah and others to revive the competition that hadn’t run since the Cleveland crash in 1949.
Stead owned more than 1,000 acres north of Reno that he thought would be the perfect place to build a race course, but Hoover told him Reno wasn’t big enough to support such an event.
“I said Reno is just too remote. It wouldn’t be financially successful,” he recalls. Stead told him, “It will catch on.”
“And now,” Hoover said, “we’ve got them coming from all over the world.”