Local air racing pilot reacts to death of friend in Reno crash

Published: Sep. 18, 2011 at 1:16 AM MST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 at 4:19 PM MST
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ORO VALLEY, AZ (KOLD) - The air show crash in Reno, Nevada, hits close to home for a pilot in Oro Valley, Arizona.

Jon Sharp, a retired air racing pilot, called it a tight knit sport with about 120 pilots nationwide.  Sharp said they were all very close, and the death of a fellow air racer in Reno was like losing a member of your own family.

"We are inside the Oro Valley home of a retired air racing pilot who has flown several times in Reno, and as you can see from all of the trophies on the wall, he's achieved numerous awards for his skill. Tonight, Jon Sharp tells us this tragedy is hitting very close to home.

Sharp had been an air racing pilot for about 40 years, and has flown 15 times at the Reno Air Show.  He won several trophies and awards and set records in his class in many of those air shows.

Sharp described pilot Jimmy Leeward, who was flying the P-51 Mustang that crashed, as a world-class pilot.

"Jimmy was an awesome pilot. Probably one of the best in Reno. He's flown movie stunts and he's flown hundreds of different planes," said Sharp.

Sharp said a friend who was watching the air show in Reno called him 30 seconds after the plane crash.

"It's a devastating, devastating tragedy," said Sharp.

What made this tragedy especially bad, according to Sharp, was the fact that the crash killed and injured spectators.

"The race pilots know going in what the risks are going in,"

Sharp said air races typically involved 8 different airplanes standing wing tip, to wing tip right before take off.

He said pilots had to have a competitive fire burning inside them, to be involved in this sport.  Once you were air-borne, Sharp described it as being very "stressful."

"Your head is in a swivel, you're looking for everybody around you.  Unlike a race car, air racing is three dimensional.  You not only have someone next to you, you could have someone above you or below you," said Sharp.

With speeds exceeding 400 mph, Sharp said it took a lot of dedication, commitment, and skill to be an air racer.

Sharp's wife Patricia Sharp described air show week as a nerve wracking one for spouses of pilots involved in the races.

"During that week you don't eat, you don't sleep, you're scared all the time," said Patricia Sharp.

What happened in Reno was their worst nightmare, playing out.

Sharp said ground crews spent hours checking out the planes from top to bottom several times before the race, but once the wheels lifted off the ground adrenaline, a competitive spirit, and lady luck were managing the controls.

"In this case, Jimmy was really pushing the envelope very far. You never know why.  Those planes are designed to go 400 miles an hour. He was going close to 500," said Sharp.

Officials are blaming the crash on a mechanical problem with the plane, but NTSB officials said it could take months before they can pin-point the exact cause of this plane crash.

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