Lee Behel, killed when his airplane crashed during a qualifying round for the Reno Air Races, won praise as a pilot’s pilot from the adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard Tuesday.
“Today is a very sad day for the men and women of the Nevada National Guard.” said Brigadier General Bill Burks. The adjutant general said it had been his privilege when Wesley Lee Behel was in the Air Guard to fly with the man who went down in a GP-5 plane Monday at Stead Airport. Behel, a retired lieutenant colonel, in Burks’ recollection “always had a smile on his face” and was a joy to know.
“Lee was one of the gifted pilots of the Nevada National Guard,” said Burks. “Lee died doing something that he loved doing.”
Behel, 64, was from San Jose, Calif., and Burks said the man was a leader in his non-military career running car dealerships. The general said Behel enjoyed flying and sailing.
But it was as a pilot Behel was recalled in the tribute news conference Burks held in offices of the Nevada National Guard headquarters on Carson City’s east side. Burks remembered Behel was a superior pilot who flew F-4 fighter and RF-4C reconnaissance jet planes during pre-retirement years with the guard. Burks said those phantom jets require great training and skill, which Behel displayed. “You have to be the consummate professional to fly fighter jets,” he said. “No detail can go unnoticed.” He said Behel fit into that category.
“You always looked forward to flying with him because he was so good,” said Burks.
The general said Behel enjoyed flying F-4 jets upside down, was highly decorated as an officer and pilot, and called his own time in the air with Behel “the gift of flying Lee’s back seat.”
Burks said it would be a “tremendous understatement” to say the deceased pilot will be missed.
Behel’s death was the second fatal accident associated with the Reno National Championship Air Races this decade, the first claiming 11 lives and causing dozens of injuries in 2011 when a plane crashed into a grandstand. Burks was asked during his news conference what he would say to those who would stop such races. “That’s very naive,” Burks replied. He said air racing, like space exploration, pushes the envelope and represents a leading edge that results in safety and other advances in the field. ““You’d really lose a national treasure.”
Cause of the GP-5 plane crash remains under investigation. Air race organizers continued with qualifying heats that had been scheduled for Tuesday.
Behel, a former Sport Class champion, was a long time air race participant and pilot. He began his military service in mid-1971 and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in April, 1993.