Friday, September 23, 2011

Pilot knows thrill, danger of air races

UNION - Danny Mortensen knows the thrill of flying just 50 feet above the ground at 200 mph.

"It's exciting," he said, "The ground goes by you in a big blur."

The 65-year-old Union resident also knows the danger of racing airplanes in the National Championship AirRaces in Reno, Nev. where a World War II-era airplane crashed into spectators killing 11 people last week.

While flying the air races in 1983, Mortensen slammed into the ground at 200 mph - he walked away with minor injuries thanks to cockpit built especially for racing.

Mortensen said he crashed several times in his 14 years racing at Reno-Stead Airport.

"There are emergencies or maydays out on the racecourse every year," he said.

The pilot in last week's crash, James Leeward, was the 20th pilot to die at the races since it began 47 years ago, but the crash was the first in which a spectator died.

Some witnesses have said it appeared the Leeward tried to steer the plane away from the crowd as it went down.

"It was a good pilot," Mortensen said. "It was a mechanical problem."

On Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators are looking at evidence that a piece fell off the plane just before the crash. NTSB cites photo and video evidence that a piece of the airframe fell off the aircraft after Leeward completed several laps and made a steep left turn.

Mortensen had met Leeward, a veteran movie stunt pilot, and been in pilot briefings with him when both were competitors in the races.

Mortensen learned to fly in an elective course at the University of Arizona when he was a student there in the 1960s. Years later, while Mortensen lived in California where he worked as an air traffic controller, he stopped to re-fuel his biplane at a small airport high in the Sierra Nevadas.

A race pilot was there working on his plane for the National Championship races. He convinced Mortensen to enter the races.

"I was the last one off the course, I finished last," he said. "But I got hooked and I slowly worked up to faster and faster airplanes."

During the races, planes fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the ground following an oval path around pylons. The distances and speeds vary depending on the class of aircraft. The modified military planes can reach speeds of up to 500 mph.

"It's quite exciting. It's a big ego trip," Mortensen said. "Most pilots dream of flying the pylons in Reno."

After he retired from the FAA in 1981, Mortensen moved to Reno to be closer to the races. During the 1983 race, his biplane rolled from wake turbulence from another plane and smashed into the ground.

"I went into the ground at 200 mph and walked away from it," he said. The cockpit of the AMSOIL/Rutan Racer had been designed to withstand 22 Gs.

He flew his last race in 1990 when he won the Gold Trophy in his division. He sold his racing planes and several have since won the races.

"My airplanes have won seven times out at Reno, but I've only been in one," he said.

A job training pilots for an airline brought him to Northern Kentucky in 1996. He also owned a company that prepares pilots for their written tests. Now retired, Mortensen was in Portland, Ore. last Friday and was trying to get a plane ticket to Reno to catch one day of the races.

He learned about the crash online and knew the rest of this year's races would be canceled.

It's still unknown if the races will resume next year. The owner of the Reno-Stead airport has said it will examine the federal investigation of the crash to determine whether further safety requirements can allow the event to continue. The Reno races, which draw 200,000 spectators, are the last big air racing event in the country.

Mortensen said he hopes the races continue, perhaps with some new safety measures such as moving the crowd further from the course.

If the pilots do get to fly at Reno again, Mortensen said he won't be among them.

"I'm retired," he said. "It took me 14 years to win it; it would probably take me 14 years to win it again."

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