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Sawbones Pit Crew Recalls Fatal Reno Air Crash

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(credit: CBS) Rachel Slavik
Rachel Slavik joined the WCCO team in October of 2010 and is thrill...
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BLAINE (WCCO) — A group of Minnesotans just returned home from the Reno Air Show race, which was the location of the nation’s deadliest air racing disaster. They were the pit crew for a plane that was competing in the event.

Craig Schiller is part of the pit crew for the World War II-era plane called “Sawbones.” His dreams of bringing home a coveted air race win came crashing down Friday afternoon.

At about 4:30 p.m., a plane plunged into the stands at the National Championship Air Races.

“It’s hard to take. It’s slowly settling in,” said Schiller, who witnessed the crash. “It was surreal. It went slower than you think.”

Like thousands in the crowd, Schiller had his eyes to the sky. His team was in the air, but he was focused on Jimmy Leeward’s P-51 mustang. Schiller watched as a pilot he’s known for years suddenly went off course.

“When he came around the last pylon, I saw the aircraft pitch up and go right. I just assumed he’s doing what’s called a mayday,” said Schiller.

After looking at pictures and video moments before the crash, many think a piece of equipment, called the trim tab, came off. That would force the plane to lift up very quickly and put a lot of G force, or pressure, on pilot. Schiller thinks that pressure likely made Leeward pass out.

“Otherwise he would have departed the area, if he would have control,” said Schiller.

Schiller and his team were a few 100 yards away from the crash site and couldn’t see the extent of the damage.

“It was a somber mood at the track. You didn’t know where to go from there,” he said.

An 11th person recently died due to injuries suffered in the crash. Reno Police said the victim has not been identified and it did not appear the person died at a local hospital.

“Everybody is just one day at a time, still are,” said Schiller.

The world of racing has its inherent dangers, but, the question many are asking; will it ground future flights?

“The odds of this happening are a million to one. It’s just very unreal,” said Schiller.

Schiller said the race route is an 8-mile loop and the spectator section only takes up about 10 percent of that track. There are maneuvers that pilots know to take if there is a problem.

Many in the aviation community are calling this a freak accident and don’t want the race to be cancelled next year.

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