One day at a time...

soaking up each and every one of them!

Cathy GF

Cathy GF
The Bay and The Lake, California, USA
December 29
Living the adventure of change


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SEPTEMBER 25, 2011 12:08PM

Reno Air Race Crash: Broken Aircraft - Broken Lives

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"Gramma!"  There was no pilot in the plane that crashed!"

Seeing, hearing and feeling the horror of this tragedy through the eyes of your grandchildren, is heart pounding, gut wrenching and the making of our most feared nightmares.

My four and a half year old grandson declared the above.  Front and center, just 20 feet from the propellor's final stop, he saw the whole thing. Within seconds, grabbed away from his post at the fence that lined the runway, he was swept away as fast as possible to safety from flying debris, metal chards and bits of flesh that splattered the surrounding spectator area for the annual air races.  Daddy enfolded him, held tightly to his chest, breaking into a sprint as fast and far as possible, fearing the anticipated explosion that never came.

Simultaneously, my daughter grabbed and ran with my two and a half year old grand daughter, further away from her son.  In the split second maternal instinct to run away with her tiny toddler, she looked back sharply at the spot where her son stood, shocked and crying, while all she could do in that moment, was to run and pray.  She could only get to one of her precious babies in these mere moments of sheer panic and the unknowing of what was next.  A parent's worst fear.

"My mommy 'protecteded' me and ran away!"  The jumbled words of my tiny grand daughter were as clear as her almond shaped brown eyes.  The words of my grand children, who were among the smallest witnessess to this rare disaster, rang like deafening words of doom in my ears and head for days.  

Lacking the ability or desire to talk or write about this near family tradgedy, both paralyzed me and stunned me deeply, until I could get back to Tahoe to see their miraculous eyes and arms held out wide to hug and kiss gramma and grampa, six days after their ordeal.  It was torture not being with them sooner; not being there to reassure them and comfort them and the precious daughter that has become the most incredible, loving mother I know.

Rapidly escaping their little mouths, their words of excitement tumbled over each other with declarations of the crash they saw; of the plane that indeed had crashed before their very own baby eyes. Would they have nightmares? Would they ever get on a plane? Would they remember this horrific sight?  Would they be skitzy at the sound of jet engines or the faltering sputter of a failed engine and a sound that sends off an alarm so big you cannot know what it is you are hearing or seeing?

They are so young and were so uncomfortably close to this tragic accident. The annual family tradition to spend a few days camping outside Stead Airforce Base near Reno, Nevada, where they would see their beloved Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds or perhaps the Canadian Snowbirds, in the spectacular performances of the best pilots in the world, was so highly anticipated.  There is nothing quite like it.  The excitement of the crowd, the colorful airplanes, the crisp uniforms of the pilots, their confident smiles and friendly introductions to the many spectators lucky enough to be close to their entrance and departure from the air field...where one of a kind shows delight and amaze the many, of all ages, all backgrounds, all there for the thrill of it all and the fantasy for some of one day becoming a pilot.

It might be the ultimate dream for a grandson who would press himself as close as he could to the fence for the best vantage point; a fence separating the spectators from the runway where the action packed day of eye popping stunts, air racing of all kinds, was a pretty big deal for this "little man."  The planes big and small, bi-planes dancing through the clouds like ballerinas, jets so loud and fast you bearly know where to look to take in all that they create in nearly impossible maneuvers that dazzle, kept the air race ethusiasts on the edge of their seats.

It is unbearable to digest all the pain of loss in a failure so big; one that has left dozens of families devastated by the sudden deaths of their loved ones and the ones that linger still, fighting for their lives in hospitals in Nevada. The prayers continue, beseach and implore the gods for help and healing. It is unthinkable for those who lost family members, friends and neighbors in seats so close and who disappeared into the dust of the unanticipated collision that left thousands in silent shock.

There was no explosion or flames of deeper devastation that awaited the incalculable numbers of those running for their lives.  Yet all went defeningly silent in the wake of the discintegration of the P-51  Mustang, flown by a veteran and Hollywood stunt pilot, Jimmy Leeward, beloved by more than can be expressed.  He accomplished, in those final moments, to avoid crashing his aircraft into hundreds of people in the grandstands, before losing consciousness and disappearing, slumped over inside the cockpit, giving the "Galloping Ghost" the appearance of being a pilotless craft of mysterious, shocking twisted fate.

A twist of fate caused by the broken, missing trim tab from the tail of the aircraft, so seemingly small, yet so huge in it's intrinsic importance to the integrity of this flying marvel,  likely caused the sudden loss of control that turned a routine, well manicured race into a nose dive of chilling proportions. Had it not been late in the race, with the fuel so low, this would have been a far graver ending to an already unthinkable disaster. The utter discintegration of the P-51 Mustang, flying at a speed of 494 MPH,  was likened to the similar affect of the jets that flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11, as they, too, simply disappeared into dust.

There are disasters that are beyond our control.  There are tragedies we rarely imagine.  And there is trauma that cannot be fully described or understood. My hope for my daughter's family, is that the impact of this memory will not shatter the desire to continue a tradition that is so precious to so many and to the countless pilots that work so hard to bring such beauty and wonder to the skies for the rest of us to observe with childlike wonder and amazement.


Yesterday afternoon, we took our grandchildren to the local Tahoe airport for dinner, as is our habit most Fridays after pre-school and daycare, to watch with great fascination, the planes and private jets that frequent our little airport and the helicopters that take off and land while we look on in absolute awe and appreciation.  This has become our little tradition, too. And it's one that we hesitatd to return to, so soon after the Reno Air crash.

However, we took our cues from the children, who wanted to return to see and hear the sights and sounds that have become so commonplace in their little lives.  They were so happy and animated to see the planes start their engines, taxi down the runway and take off to the back drop of the mountains and waning light of the pure blue sky, that is Lake Tahoe.

Though the memory of the crash will linger in their young minds and psyches for some time to come, the fear that ensued will fade in time while new memories replace those of that tragic day.  Mom and Dad, however, will continue to replay that day, the trauma that will live on in the parental psyche, reliving the events, the what-ifs, the too close for comfort...the gut wrenching actions to shelter their precious children and themselves.

They were the lucky ones.

I am so deeply grateful that they survived a nearly unsurvivable occurrence. 

It wasn't their time.

Thank God.







September 16, 2011  Reno Air Races



This was the first year in three that I didn't attend the air races with my daughter's family and grandchildren.

This is just part of their story and mine. 

The story of these events continues and will unfold as the investigation of the crash will not conclude for many months to come. 

Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the victioms of the crash, the numerous others who were seriously injured and to all who witnessed this life changing event and tragedy. 

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Cathy, thank you for this very personal story. I'm driving through Reno as I write this, returning from the annual family reunion in Tahoe Vista with the extended family. Your story brought home the horror of the tragedy to me as I look around and contemplate it. Best wishes to all of you.
Ralph! I can't believe you are driving through Reno! That's amazing and talk about bizarre timing! Thanks for your kind comment.
rated but speechless Cathy
Steve and I just looked at this and are just so glad you are okay. I have watched this unfold all week and those pic and the words made me cry.

What a tragedy for all. SO glad all your babies escaped. A mother's and grandmother's worst nightmare for sure.
Trig - I know, buddy. It's a hard story to swallow. Thanks.

Linda - Thanks, Sweetie. This was the hardest thing to write about. Cost me more lost sleep and images that do haunt, even without having been there in person.
Trilogy - Yes, it is. I know you understand that fully. Thank you.
Thank you for writing so beautifully about this tragedy. I cannot imagine how horrible it must have been. Loving thoughts and prayers for your family and all the families involved.
rated with love
Oh Cathy. . .this is beyond words.
How awful for a child so young; how wonderful for how you wrote this. r.
RP - Thank you. I can't even begin to imagine how horrible it was for my sweet family and all those there to witness this. The impact for me felt like anything but second hand because they are so connected to my heart and psyche I could almost feel and smell all their emotions.

Roger - Thanks much.

Jon - Yes, just awful for them all, but unbearable to imagine the children seeing and hearing this crash that has given my daughter nightmares and sleep loss. Unimaginable for sure. Thank you.
Thank you for writing about this. My thoughts and love are with you. -R-
God bless Cathy, I'm glad you and yours are in good shape.
it's sobering to realize how quickly our lives can be turned inside out. Your telling of this is compelling. The deep love you have for your family is beautiful.
i'm so very glad your children and grandchildren are fine. that was a horrible close call and a tragedy almost beyond words for a lot of people. my husband and his oldest son have been to those air races, too, the last time just a couple years ago, and tom has actually survived his own plane crash. sometimes the odds are with you and sometimes not. gives me chills to think about.
A frightening experience for them to witness. I am glad they are okay and my heart goes out to those who are not.
What a compelling, personal story, Cathy. I'm very sorry for those who have lost their lives, and relieved for your grandchildren both for being spared and being young enough that they can outgrow the horrendous memory of it. Ive been to Snowbirds shows and have an idea of the adrenalin rush such proximity to so much noise and power can bring.
Best thoughts to all.
That is so incredible and I am thankful that your loved ones were safe. The full horror of an early fall afternoon with family. Those pictures left me agape.
You wrote this so vividly and so descriptively, I felt like I was there. Can't imagine your daughter (my beautiful niece) in that situation. She and her husband seemed to instinctively know what to do. Hard to imagine what's in the minds of the little ones, but there are things that can help if they seem to be having nightmares, etc. Can't imagine how hard it was not to be able to see them all for six days! Thank you so much for sharing with all of us. This was heart stomping. R
That is one very compelling story and I am so happy to read that no one from your family was injured. What a frightening spectacle to have unfold above and around your family members. Occasionally, I will read of an air show that had something go terribly wrong, but never knew anyone present. The photo of the plane in a vertical dive and the resulting explosion are heart stopping and so sad.
Christine - Thank you so much. And you are so welcome. It needed to be written.

Whoreville - Thanks, buddy. Me, too!

desert_rat - Thank you very much. So much to be grateful for...

Mimetalker - That's the truth! Life can turn on a dime and we are seldom prepared for what it has in store. Thank you for your kind response.

Candace - So chilling, yes. Surviving a plane crash is fairly rare and that your Tom was a survivor is quite amazing. Thank you for your meaningful response to this event.

Sheila - Thanks very much.

Fusun A - Your Canadian Snowbirds performed at the Reno Air Races last summer. I met them all and was so impressed by their friendliness and incredible skills. I have a poster of theirs hanging on the closet door in my grandson's bedroom in our house. Air races are stunning and leave us in awe of the skill and dedication needed to excel in this art. Thank you, Fusun.

Miguela - Thank you for your sweet response. Those pics barely expose the anguish of that day. Thank goodness.

Mare - Thanks, Sis, for your thoughtful response. The only one having nightmares is the mom. I can barely imagine the angst she must feel. But there are all ok and the kids seem fine. They talk about it as if no one got hurt. They have no idea. That is best for now. Thanks for your kind words.

Larry - Thank you very much for your thoughtful words and comment. It is daunting for those who merely watched it on the news, but to have lived it, I cannot fully imagine. My dear daughter, husband and grand children were so very lucky that day.
Wow, wow, wow.
Thank God is all I can say.
Keeping you and your family in my thoughts.
it is a terrible tragedy. and having a brother who is a pilot near to where this happened makes me think how fragile our lives are. I'm glad you and yours are safe Cathy. At least there will be some changes made when the investigation is done, not the least of which will be more stringent guidelines and procedures as well as thorough inspections of all elements of the planes involved. If it turns out that the pilots seat was modified in a way to lessen its structural integrity thereby initiating a cascade of failures, then it would be clear the guidelines for participation must multiple times as strict as they are now.

Glad you're safe, I'm stunned at the loss of life at what should have been a happy event.
ladyfarmerjed - Thanks, sweetie! Soo appreciated!

bbd - Thank you, Barry. Appreciate your thoughtful comment and thoughts. Had not heard of the pilot's seat changes but so much about this aircraft was altered, improved, give it the ultimate edge for speed. So many questions. My observation from attending the last few years is that the crowd is way too close to the runway, which surprised me. We'll see what happens next year, as I will make it a point to be there with the family.
Oh, Cathy!!
I am so sorry that your grandchildren witnessed this, and I am SO thankful they are okay!!
My heart goes out to those children who witnessed and will surely have nightmares, and to the families of those who died and were injured.
Such a tragedy. I do appreciate your sharing this...
Just Thinking - Thanks for your wonderful comment and sentiments over this event. Very appreciated!
I literally cannot speak. So very well-written and packing a powerful punch. It's clear this one came from your gut Cath :-)
Kelly Lark! You're making me blush! Thanks so much! It certainly was from my gut and my heart of hearts. That's my family and the center of my life (along with my other two dear daughters and their darling men)!