The crew of a vintage Bell UH-1D Huey had flown their 1965 helicopter from their base in Concord, Calif., to the 2011 National Championship Air Races at Stead Field in Reno, Nev. There, they were to be part of the National Aviation Heritage Invitational static display and competition, which is held annually at the races. It was a chance for the owners and crew of the meticulously restored “25th Infantry” helicopter to win an award for their work. It was supposed to be a pleasant weekend for the men, answering spectator questions about their helicopter, which was painted in Vietnam-era livery, mingling with other Vietnam vets in attendance and, of course, watching the fastest motor sports event on the planet.
It didn’t work out that way.
On September 16, during the Friday afternoon Unlimited Gold Class race, the elevator trim tab came off the “Galloping Ghost,” a highly modified P-51 Mustang flown by 74-year-old air race veteran Jimmy Leeward, as it entered the straightaway in front of the grandstands. In a split second the aircraft flew wide off course over the VIP box seats, climbed violently, stalled, rolled inverted and plunged into the crowd, sending shrapnel scattering across more than two acres and pounding a three-foot deep crater into the tarmac. Leeward and 10 spectators died. More than 70 were injured, some critically. Witnesses said it was like a big bomb going off, and there was carnage everywhere.
Within minutes, the sheriff’s department requested that the Huey, parked 600 feet from the crash site, be made ready to transport the wounded. Two crewmembers, retired fire fighter David Dean and California Highway Patrol officer Brent Marker, were already in the middle of what was essentially a blast zone, assisting the wounded and coordinating with EMS workers. Meanwhile, pilot Ray Murphy, who flew two tours in Vietnam before going on to a 25-year career at the FAA, copilot Tim Horrell, another Vietnam vet, along with co-owner Chris Miller, got the 6,000-pound helicopter wheeled, fueled and pushed–with the help of other volunteers in the static area–into takeoff position. The rear bench seat was folded up and two single jump seats had to be removed to accommodate stretchered patients.
Murphy got on the radios and Horrell lifted the Huey into hover and landed on the edge of the debris field. While four patients were being hot-loaded aboard, a medevac AStar landed next to the Huey. Murphy and Horrell enlisted the help of a patient loader to act as navigator and took off for Reno’s Renown Medical Center. En route the AStar passed them, so they followed it into Renown. The AStar headed for the hospital helipad, so the Huey landed in an improvised landing zone in Pickett Park across the street. Murphy jumped out and helped EMS workers unload the patients, all of whom survived. Murphy and Horrell then quickly flew back to Stead to offer further assistance, but none was required.
The men of the 25th have heard from at least one of the survivors they transported, who called to say thanks. More thanks are being delivered here at Heli-Expo, as the Huey crew receives the coveted Eurocopter Golden Hour Award at Monday’s Salute to Excellence Awards dinner.