WARNING, GRAPHIC CRASH FOOTAGE (And some foul language). (All rights reserved, commercial distribution or publication with our specific written permission is not authorized)
On September 18, 2016, during the Gold final start we experienced an accident involving our F1 racer, ‘Hot Stuff’ and a fellow competitor’s airplane.
We were number four on the starting grid, which was the middle inside position with three aircraft on the front row, one to our right and three behind. Upon running the engine up in anticipation of the start, about 20 seconds before the green flag drop, the engine was not running well enough for flight, as you can hear from the audio, never mind racing. I made the decision to shut the engine down to signal the starters to halt the starting process. The flagman on my row put his hands in an ‘X’ over his head, as our procedures prescribe, and I opened my canopy to make it clear I was out of the race and so everyone could see me. The alternate airplane was signaled to taxi on to the runway to replace my entry. I felt confident the communications had reached the appropriate people and waited for personnel to push me off the runway.
However, much to my surprise, I saw the flagman run out on to the runway waving his hands over his head as if something was wrong. The aircraft to my right started rolling and a few seconds later the number six and eight aircraft flew by me on either side. All I could do at that point was hope the number seven (center) aircraft would clear me on the centerline to my right.
The impact was violent and loud. His left leading edge shaved off the top several inches from my vertical and skimmed the turtle-deck without touching until it impacted my right hand holding up the canopy, at well over sixty miles an hour. The left landing gear hit the top of the gull-wing center-section, blowing a hole in the top skin and impacted the rear face of the front spar so hard that it broke the landing gear clean off his airplane. The propeller sliced three evenly spaced gashes about mid span of my right wing, about a foot apart. The right landing gear sheared the wing off just short of the right wingtip. The impact spun me around nearly 180º, like a teacup ride at warp eight. The other aircraft came to rest several hundred feet in front of me with a folded gear, damaged wing and sheared propeller facing the other way as well. That pilot received no injuries.
Three things immediately came to mind. Make yourself as small as possible to avoid further injury until things stop moving. Once the aircraft came to rest, DON’T MOVE! And since I was not on fire, wait for help to arrive. I knew my hand was busted and was not looking forward to removing my glove. But it was more important to make sure I had not been struck in the head or hurt my neck or back. After assessing my situation I realized I did not have any further injuries and proceeded to shut the switches off and assist with un-strapping myself from the wreckage. Help was there very quickly, including my flagman.
Then I proceeded to ask the condition of the other pilot and how this had happened. The video should speak for itself. My next concern was to let my crew know I was OK. The one thing any spectator looks for in an accident are the correct number of flight suits walking around the wreckage after any crash, I made sure I did. Everything else can be fixed. Reno EMS quickly patched me up with a splint and had me walking back to my pit in no time. They really are good at what they do.
Hot Stuff suffered severe damage. It’ll be several months before we figure out what to do with her. I’m not the slightest bit upset over the accident. I, in fact, consider myself a very lucky man. Another four feet to the left and I would have been minced meat. Literally dodging a bullet. A busted up hand is a small price to pay. I’ll take it. It’ll heal. Though it is difficult to type one-handed.
I’ve said many times before and I’ll say it again, there’s risk in everything we do. But the counterpart to that is reward. I choose to cross the street because the risk of crossing the street is worth the reward of getting to the other side. Same thing with air racing, I’ll be back. Of course there’ll be a review of procedures, how to prevent something like this from happening again and a thorough investigation. I’ve used up another of my nine lives, but why would you have nine unless you plan to use them?… We live, learn and race on.