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Thousands remember 11 killed at Reno Air Races

By Kelly Marshall Smoot, CNN
September 16, 2012 -- Updated 2217 GMT (0617 HKT)
The modified 1944 P-51 Mustang just before crashing at the Reno Air Races September 16, 2011
The modified 1944 P-51 Mustang just before crashing at the Reno Air Races September 16, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The top air race official reflects on "devastating blow" caused by 2011 crash
  • He speaks at a ceremony in Reno remembering the pilot and 10 spectators who died
  • A modified World War II era airplane crashed into spectators after a mechanical malfunction
  • Several changes were made to bolster safety at the Nevada airport for this year's races

Reno, Nevada (CNN) -- Exactly a year after a crash that killed 10 spectators and the pilot of a modified World War II era airplane, the Reno Air Races returned to action in the skies over western Nevada.

An emotional memorial ceremony was held around noon Sunday (3 p.m. ET) at Reno-Stead Airport, stirring up sad, difficult memories for the thousands in attendance and bringing at least one son of a person killed in last year's crash to tears.

Reflecting on the "devastating blow" that last year's crash dealt to the Reno "air race family," Reno Air Racing Association President and CEO Mike Houghton talked about the "tremendous sorrow" many had experienced and the resilience and courage of those whose relatives were killed.

"In their absence, our lives have changed," Houghton said of the 11 victims. "Yet I have seen firsthand that through their memories and through watching and getting to know those they left behind, we can better understand what it means to love and to live."

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, then gave brief descriptions of each person killed. A short time later, the victims' names were read out again -- with a white balloon released into the air for each one.

The ceremony ended with a parachutist dropping in with the American flag at the end of the national anthem

Soon thereafter, races resumed with aircraft once again crisscrossing the skies.

Earlier, Houghton said most people would not have bet that the Reno Air Races would happen this year. That did not hold true, though there have been notable differences: Advance ticket sales were down 7% to 8% from previous years, and the crowds in the first few days since the event opened on Wednesday have been smaller, the association's leader said.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, last year's crash of the modified P-51 airplane -- named "Galloping Ghost" and flown by pilot Jimmy Leeward -- was caused by the failure of several lock nuts on the left trim tab, which is part of the airplane's tail. The worn nuts allowed the screws to loosen, ultimately leading the aircraft to plunge into the ground in front of the box seating area, killing Leeward and 10 spectators. More than 60 others were injured.

NTSB: High speed, worn parts led to deadly Reno Air Races crash

The Reno Air Race Association made several changes ahead of this year's event to improve safety, as recommended by the federal safety board and the association's own expert panel.

For instance, airplanes now must demonstrate their airworthiness at racing speeds before the races. Spectators will be seated farther from the course. The course itself has been "flattened," including the tight turn where last year's accident occurred.

Veteran pilot Steve Hinton, who was part of the race association's expert panel, watched last year's accident unfold and commended the changes. The pace plane pilot said he and other pilots believe last year's crash was a fluke and that the plane could have crashed anywhere.

"We're pushing the envelope, and when you're pushing for speed, things happen. But when it affects the public that's a different story."

First-time visitor Perry Paulazzo, a disaster restoration business owner from Santa Fe, New Mexico, agrees. Members of his family have been coming to the Nevada races for years, and he had no hesitation about joining them this year. Even though his cousin saw the accident last year from the grandstands, Paulazzo said, "I know it was a freak thing."

Paulazzo's biggest disappointment is that part of the course was moved back per the NTSB's recommendation.

"The closer the better," he said but he also understands why the race organizers had to make the changes.

The five-day Reno Air Races features six classes of race planes, some acrobatic performances and flights by military demonstration teams.

The distance and number of pylons the planes have to circle varies by class, but it is the "unlimited" contests that draw the most fans.

Unlimited race planes are generally modified World War II era fighter planes, some of which can fly at nearly 500 miles per hour. One plane known as Strega -- another modified P-51 like the one Leeward crashed -- ran a qualifying heat of 493 miles per hour.

Excitement, speed key to air racing's appeal -- and risk

Stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward built his life around love of flight

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