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J.P.'s moment of common sense - Reno Air Races

September 17, 2011

[8th weekly oratorial exposition on Broad View, KBZZ 1270 AM Reno. Click on the microphone to listen.]

As we all know, yesterday at about 4:30 in the afternoon there was a horrific crash at the Reno Air Races. Pilot Jimmy Leeward had some kind of malfunction and crashed in front of the box seats, injuring scores of spectators, some of them critically. Eight spectators are dead, as well as Jimmy Leeward himself.

That’s twice in two weeks the Reno area has made world-wide news with man-made disasters: first the IHOP shooting south of town in Carson City, now this, just north of town in Stead. Northwest Nevada is not exactly New York City or Afghanistan, so this kind of mayhem is unusual to say the least. Everybody in town is a little bit stunned, and wondering about the run of bad luck.

Emotions are still raw about what happened yesterday, and the primary interest of decent people at this point should be help and sympathy for Jimmy Leeward, the injured spectators, and their friends and relatives. People are grieving all over town, all over the world. I wish we could leave it at that for a few days... but it’s the nature of modern society to immediately start self-flagellating, pointing fingers, and demanding answers. Last night on the news I saw the local CBS affiliate, Channel 2, already asking whether the Reno Air Races should continue. The same question was being asked on national news networks. On CNN’s website I read comments from people around the world challenging the whole notion of air races.

“I didn’t know anything that stupid was still happening in the modern world,” was one comment, from a Canadian man. Whereupon somebody else pointed out that Canada has a number of its own air races, so there.

Even our own Dean Heller, brand new Republican senator, weighed in last night, saying something about how if they can’t figure out how to keep spectators safe, “we” might have to do something. I don’t know who he meant by “we,” but Mr. Heller, this is none of the federal government’s business, so butt out.

Let me go on the record right here, right now, while emotions are still raw, and defend the Reno Air Races. Defend the notion of air racing in particular and the notion of risk in general. I don’t want to live in a risk-free world, because that’s the difference between living and merely existing. I don’t want government bureaucrats and insurance company lawyers restricting everything I do or dream about doing, leaving me stuck in a cozy little condo somewhere watching endless episodes of American Idol.

Remember the Abby Sunderland story from last year? Abby Sunderland was a sixteen-year-old girl from California who attempted to sail around the world non-stop. She got in trouble and stopped for repairs, started out again and then got demasted in the Southern Ocean, where she had to be rescued. I wrote a column about how the episode divided people along political lines. Conservatives and libertarians seemed to think sailing around the world was a noble endeavor, even though she didn’t make it, while liberals seemed to think her parents were hardly better than child abusers.

The nanny-staters want every possible risk removed from our lives, to save us from ourselves, and they’re willing to sacrifice every ounce of freedom we have left to achieve that goal. They don’t seem to realize that when they reach the goal, we won’t have anything left worth saving.

I’m not a pilot, and I don’t even know any pilots, but I love the idea that there are men willing to race fast airplanes around pylons, just because they relish the thrill and excitement of flying. Those are my kind of people. The Reno Air Races are a world-class air show, and people come from all over the world to watch the week-long accumulation of bizarre and wild flying machines. The best video of yesterday’s accident was shot by an Australian who traveled all the way here just for the Reno Air Races. He deserves special acclamation by the way, because he was standing directly underneath when Jimmy’s plane started down, but his camera remained amazingly steady except for a second or two of doubt when he thought the plane was going to land on his head.

For those one or two seconds he considered running for his life, then he got back to filming. You gotta love those Australians.

Another person who earned my admiration was Mike Houghton, CEO of the air races, who stood before the cameras and answered questions like a man yesterday. We can’t know the kind of grief he was feeling. He’d just lost a close friend and seen dozens of people loaded into emergency vehicles, all of this happening at an event he clearly loves and cherishes, but he held the microphone steady and stood up square and answered the questions as best he could. Like a grownup. Hang in there, Mike.

There is risk involved in almost everything worthwhile, whether we’re talking about flying to the moon, sailing unknown oceans, fighting for justice, or establishing new civilizations. Thank God people have existed throughout history who were willing to take those risks.

Sometimes there is even risk involved in attending an air show, and while that seems a little harder to justify, it’s the same debate and the answer is the same: thank God there are people willing to step away from their TVs and go watch the Reno Air Races.

It’s only the day after the crash, not even 24 hours since it happened, but already the philosophical discussion is occurring, so I don’t think it’s too soon to put a positive word in for my side of the debate. I hope they study this accident and figure out what caused it so they can prevent similar accidents in the future. I know they will. I hope they review whether spectators are sitting too close, and I know they’ll do that, too. Beyond that, I hope the Reno Air Races continue and never stop, because I am firmly on the side of the men who fly airplanes around pylons. God bless them.

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." – Anais Nin

From Reno, Nevada, USA       

September 18, 2011 - Your support for Mike Houghton is dead on, as well as your support for daring individuals, but the air races need better mechanical inspection just like planes leaving any other airport. My 11 year old daughter and her friends were in the box seats Friday afternoon, having been treated to pit passes by a generous friend. She came home just an hour before the disaster. Because my daughter is safe, I admit my outrage over your cavalier willingness to risk her life is tempered. If she'd been hurt, and I'd had to read your callous, pompous justification for senseless loss of life, I'd be in my car on my way over to kick your ass. How about you take risks with your own life, not hers? My kids will never attend again while they're under my watch until the races/planes have been investigated and safety precautions implemented. - Katherine, Reno
J.P. replies: Thank God your daughter is safe. That far outweighs anything else... in my mind, too. But I doubt there is any kind of inspection above and beyond the FAA inspections that all airplanes undergo already that will put a permanent end to mechanical failure. (Assuming that's what happened here.) And this freakish accident? Where the failure happened right in front of the spectators causing the plane to go straight up, then barrel roll toward the grandstands, then plummet straight down? Nobody can prepare for or prevent something that weird.

September 18, 2011 - End the Reno Air Races! Racing planes in circles is even stupider than racing cars in circles. (Sorry NASCAR fans but your sport is dumb.) - Rich P., Illinois

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