Jimmy Leeward and the Reno Air Tragedy | Reflections on How Social Media is Changing the Way We Grieve

The air show accident yesterday in Reno is still reverberating — at this writing, the death toll has risen to 9 including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and with the high number of victims in critical condition there will clearly be more loss of life. Since this began to unfold yesterday afternoon, I’ve been thinking not only about the tragedy itself — which is horrific and gut-wrenching to be sure– but also about how social media is changing the way we experience something like this. I first heard about it on Anderson Cooper/CNN, and then pretty much instantly opened a Facebook tab and a twitter tab, and began following the unfolding story on the traditional CNN channel — which did all the things that traditional media does — but also on the other two “channels” represented by Facebook and Twitter. On Twitter, there were updates flowing constantly that were quite a bit out in front of CNN — new video, new photos, a tidbit from a local hospital, a comment from someone driving away from the scene. On Facebook, I did the first thing that came to mind which was to search for Jimmy Leeward — found him, and then began watching the flow of condolences and eventually a message from the family.

In some way, the introduction of social media into the mix when experiencing something as tragic as this, as opposed to watching it unfold solely on TV, seems to have the effect of removing it from the realm of spectacle, making it more personal, more real, and more respectful of the entire situation. Within a few minutes of following the Facebook condolences, watching the “Likes” shoot up on Jimmy Leeward’s page, and hearing directly from Leeward’s family, I began to feel like I knew this guy, and had lost a friend. Some of this, I think, has to do with the remarkable nature of the person — a 74 year old guy flying a 60 year old aircraft with a twinkle in his eye and joy in his hear — what’s not to love? I found myself rooting for the flow of comments that were saying something had gone wrong with the plane, and Leeward had struggled heroically to save lives. Surely that’s the narrative I wanted to believe, and thankfully it seems today like it’s more and more likely that’s the true narrative.  Pictures have emerged (first reported on Twitter) that show a missing trim tab (see photo)……and AV Web is describing the incident in greater detail, including a similar incident in which a trim tab caused a similar upward pitch:

What is known is that Leeward had rounded the last pylon before the long straightaway in front of the grandstand when his aircraft pitched up, rolled and dove almost vertically into the cement just on the edge of the box seating area. Reports say Leeward called a single Mayday. There have been suggestions that Leeward attempted to maneuver away from the seating area, sparing many lives. As of mid-morning Saturday, the casualty count stood at three dead and almost 60 injured, 15 critically. There was an incident during the 1998 Reno Air Races in which a trim tab came off a P-51 named Voodoo Chile. In that incident, also mentioned in AVweb‘s coverage, the aircraft pitched violently up, causing pilot Bob Hannah to black out under a G load estimated at 10 Gs. He regained consciousness at 9,000 feet and was able to land safely.

The Galloping Ghost and Jim Leeland, seconds before the crash, with the missing trim tab clearly visible on the left rear of the plane. (Click to enlarge)

On Facebook, I watched as the likes rose from 1,900 when I started watching, to over 4,500 — an impressive rise, but still small enough to make me feel like I was experiencing this as part of a small-town sized community. I felt closer yet to Jimmy, and to the unnamed victims.

Today I collected some of the best condolence from Leeward’s Facebook page:

Barry K. Brown | Jimmy flew the “Ghost” in my film, Cloud Dancer, along with Charlie Hillard, Tom Poberezny, Gene Soucy and other brilliant airman. No finer gentleman ever lived. He was vastly underpaid, but joined us for the love of flying. He smiled constantly and no danger fazed him. Sadly, my old friend is now with Charlie — both taken by WWII aircraft they loved. I will never forget the time I spent with Jimmy, racing along at tree top level, shooting background for the film. Perhaps such men were birds in another life; like Charlie, flying now without wings. Climb higher to never land.

Debi Coleman | God’s blessings on you and your family. I pray this horrific accident does not force the FFA and NTSB to decide against holding the races. Jimmy and all of the National Championship Air Race family have always done everything to protect the teams and the spectators. This was always a highlight for my husband and myself every year when we lived in Reno. We purchased box seats for many years and introduced many ppl to this exciting and wonderful event. While the loss of life was devastating let’s not forget the joy and excitement this event has brought to so many. I believe Jimmy did all in his power to keep this from being a more unbelievably disastrous tragedy and that he would want the air races to continue. I know he is racing with the angels as we speak and pray that his family feels the love of all of us and our Lord and will have the strength to get through this terribly sad time in their lives. Bless you all.

Kristen Kovach | I am am praying for Jimmy family and all of the others families that loss their family or friends also! And for people that were hurt in this accident and there families! Even tho I never met Jimmy! I think Jimmy did everything that he could do to make sure that he would not hurt or kill people in that crash! I think when he know that he was going to crash in his mind he said I better do something now before the plane crash! I think he was trying to get far away from people as he could before plane crash! In my book he is a hero! RIP Jimmy! I live in Florida too! Love, Kristen 🙂
about an hour ago · Unlike · 1 person

Dustin Webster | It’s never easy losing a loved one but everyone knows Jimmy chose to LIVE his life, versus just going along for the ride. Jimmy, enjoy your new set of wings my friend and see you on the other side!

Tim Trainor | Prayers and condolences to Jimmy’s family and the spectators’ families that were affected by this tragedy. I’m speculating a bit, but the way the aerodynamics were affected by the broken elevator trim tab, yet the dive angle pitch was changed at the last moment, I choose to speculate that Jimmy did some last-split-second heroics, and likely spared many more lives from also becoming part of this horrible tragedy.
God’s speed to Jimmy, the two spectators killed and the others injured. Prayers for their families and to all the friends and fans affected.

Arianna Barry Jimmy Leeward was a great Pilot and a true Aviation Hero…pulling up and steering Galloping Ghost as far away from the grandstands as he could… he saved the lives of hundreds of people in the bleachers yesterday…..Thank you Jimmy. may you now rest in peace…. and my deepest sympathy and condolences for his family and for all the families of the good people who lost their lives and for those who are injured and still fighting for their lives…my prayers are with you all…
5 hours ago · Like · 4 people

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