RENO, Nev. (AP) — Spectators and racers paid tribute Sunday to 11 people who were killed when a plane crashed into box seats at last year’s Reno National Championship Air Races.
A moment of silence was held on the anniversary of the horrific accident at Reno-Stead Airport for pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 victims on the ground.
The emotional ceremony before a crowd of tens of thousands also featured the release of white balloons and a flag presentation after each victim’s name was read.
“Today is dedicated to paying tribute to all of those so greatly affected by the cold, unsympathetic and somber hands of fate ... and to memorializing those 11 members of our air race family who are no longer with us today ,” said Mike Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association.
Among injured victims in attendance were members of a Kansas family. The crash killed 73-year-old Cherie Elvin, of Lenexa, Kan., while her husband, Chuck, sons Brian and Bill, and daughter-in-law Linda Elvin lost part of their legs.
Bill Elvin told the Reno Gazette-Journal that his heart was racing Friday as he watched a plane come around the final pylon closest to the box seats, but slowly began to relax. Like other members of his family, he’s an aviation fan who thinks organizers have made the air races as safe as possible.
“How do you protect people from catastrophic events?” he told the newspaper. “They happen because we are human. If we were perfect, no accidents would happen ... But that’s not how life is. We have to accept that’s how life is.”
Leeward’s World War II-era P-51 Mustang fighter reached 530 mph before it pitched skyward and then slammed nose-first into the box seats fronting the grandstand, killing him and 10 others. Seventy others were injured.
Federal investigators last month blamed Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., and his aircraft modifications for the crash. A crucial tail control known as the trim tab fluttered, its screws loosening.
The crash prompted the implementation of new safety measures, including a redesigned race course that adds 150 feet of buffer — pushing the distance between racing planes and the permanent grandstand to at least 1,000 feet.
Also honored Sunday at the air races was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
Members of the National Aviation Heritage Invitational announced a trophy awarded to the best vintage aircraft restored to airworthy condition would be renamed after Armstrong.
Armstrong, who died last month in Ohio at age 82, walked on the moon in July 1969.
Among aviation pioneers who paid tribute to Armstrong were Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher and record-setter Dick Rutan.
The weeklong air races conclude with the finals Sunday. It’s the only event of its kind in the world, sometimes with wingtip-to-wingtip racing 100 feet off the ground in six classes of aircraft.