STEAD, Nev. — Two-time champion Steve Hinton Jr. thought the National Championship Air Races would never run again.
The 24-year-old pilot and son of a former six-time champ of the same name was convinced it was all over a year ago when tragedy struck like never before in the 48 years of performance racing at Reno-Stead Airport.
Hinton was pursuing a dream — a third straight title — and had opened up such a comfortable lead during the preliminary heat last Sept. 16 that he’d begun to ease the throttle on his P-51D Mustang with a half lap to go.
That’s when he got the radio call:
“Black flag. All racers off the course.”
Hinton knew something “tragic had to have happened.”
But there are temperature gauges, pressure pumps and gears that take priority when putting the brakes on a modified World War II fighter going 500 mph — sometimes wingtip to wingtip 100 feet off the ground.
“It’s not like pulling a car over to the side of the road,” Hinton said.
“Initially, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ You have to manage everything, including your emotions.”
As they climbed to safer altitudes circling the 8.5-mile course through the Valley of Speed on the high-desert side of the Sierra Nevada, Hinton kept scanning the airfield but saw no flashing lights, no sign of wreckage.
Then, another garbled radio call: a warbird “went into the grandstand. It’s not good.”
“I never even thought to look in the grandstand,” Hinton said, shaking his head.
Still circling, Hinton began to take inventory to see who was gone.
Stewart Dawson knew who it was — a 73-year-old former Hollywood stunt pilot from Florida named Jimmy Leeward and his P-51 Mustang dubbed the “Galloping Ghost.”
“He was right in my windshield when it happened,” said Dawson, 58, a retired Southwest Airlines pilot from Celina, Texas, who flies the Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat “Rare Bear.”
“I knew it wasn’t good. His plane pitched upward, and that’s not normal,” he said. “I looked out my rear window and saw the plane hit the pavement and disintegrate.”
Stunned, Dawson asked himself, “Did I just see what I saw?”
“I never saw a plane disintegrate before,” he said. “It’s just disbelief. It was horrible.”
Within hours, much of the world saw photographs and video of just how horrible — the aircraft hurtling nose down and exploding like a bomb in the box seats, killing 10 spectators and seriously injuring more than 70.
Will Whiteside was trying to catch Hinton, flying ahead of Leeward in second place, when disaster struck.
“I had no idea he was in trouble,” said Whiteside, 41, pilot of the YACK 3U “Steadfast” from Windsor, Calif. “I didn’t learn what happened until I landed. It puts you in a bit of shock when you see loved ones walking back from the crash site.”
“Couldn’t be much worse,” Dawson added. “This is a family and everybody in the Unlimited class was a friend of Jimmy’s.”
The pilots and crews will tell you the Reno Air Races are themselves a family unit.
“I don’t just know everybody, I adore them,” said Marilyn Dash, a veteran biplane pilot from the San Francisco Bay Area who saw Leeward crash.
“I know their families, their kids, their grandkids,” Dash said. “It’s a big family event. It’s so close-knit. I never thought we could become closer, but we did.”
Few know better than Hinton, who grew up with a legendary racing champ for a father, the walls covered with airplane pictures at his childhood home 15 minutes from the airport in Chino, Calif., where his grandfather, Ed Maloney, founded an aviation museum in 1957.
Hinton and his twin sister were only two weeks old when they first came to Reno. By the time he could walk, “Stevo” knew he’d rather be at the races than stuck at the daycare across the street where he could only hear the engines roar.
His first big race memory is of his dad picking him up at age 4 and plopping him down in the cockpit as they towed his winning plane off the runway in 1991.
The youngest pilot to win an Unlimited title at age 22, he knows the danger that comes with the thrill of flying and didn’t hesitate when asked if he’d be willing to discuss Leeward’s death.
“I’m not emotional about it,” Hinton said, sitting at a wooden picnic table in a hangar as passers-by congratulated him for the top qualifying speed of 493 mph he posted a few hours earlier.
“Unfortunately, because my family is in this business, I’ve been exposed to it for so long that you get to a point that … I don’t want to say you are immune to having people dying in airplanes, but it’s controlled emotions. It’s much more subdued,” he said.
“I don’t know how many people I have known who lost their lives in airplanes. So it wasn’t so much an emotional experience for me — initially.”
But as he begins to share memories of Leeward from his youth, he pauses for composure as tears well in his eyes.
“He was very supportive of me,” Hinton said, a slight smile returning. “He had a stock Mustang that was the first I ever changed spark plugs on.”
The night of the crash, pilots and crews sat around their planes under tents in the pits trying to take it all in.
“We started to come to the realization that was going to be our last Reno Air Races,” Hinton recalled. “We just sat there next to the airplane until 1 o’clock in the morning because we thought it was going to be the last chance we were going to get to do this.”
“And it’s always been a dream of mine to race here. So to have an opportunity to do it again, is really nice.”