Jasper pilot among best at famed Reno air races
by Daniel Gaddy
Sep 21, 2012 | 3703 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Fans of the Reno Air Races look over Big Red, which belongs to and is flown by Jasper pilot Joey Sanders. Sanders finished first in the silver division of the race and sixth in the gold division. Photo courtesy of Holly Trawick
Fans of the Reno Air Races look over Big Red, which belongs to and is flown by Jasper pilot Joey Sanders. Sanders finished first in the silver division of the race and sixth in the gold division. Photo courtesy of Holly Trawick
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Amid the first anniversary of a plane crash that killed a pilot and 10 spectators, tens of thousands of people attended the 2012 Reno National Championship Air Races. Many of them saw Walker County’s team Big Red finish first in its division.

“I'm glad that everyone decided to come back out this year; it really showed the strength and spirit of our crew of aviation enthusiasts and all the pilots,” said Joey “Gordo” Sanders, pilot of Big Red and owner of Sanders Aviation in Jasper.

Sanders, a 25-year aviation veteran who flew missions during Desert Storm, flies in the T6 division of the Reno Air Races. He describes it as NASCAR for airplanes, with no modifications performed on the aircraft.

In addition to placing first in the silver category, Big Red also placed sixth in the gold category.

Sanders said Big Red reached more than 230 mph during the event (an all-time high speed for the plane). He said it is quite a breakthrough for an airplane that has been flying longer than any other aircraft in the Reno Air Races.

Sanders also said the breakthrough in speed is thanks in large part to another racing team, Fix Cat, which let team Big Red use some of its parts.

Sanders’ daughter, Jessica, said such a gesture is commonplace at the Reno Air Races, where there has always been a sense of family among the crews and pilots.

It was that sense of family, she said, that helped provide an atmosphere of healing among the competitors and spectators of the Reno Air Races.

“It was just a feeling of comfort knowing all of Dad's friends would be out there,” Jessica Sanders said, referring to the other racing pilots and their crews.

Officials with the race held a memorial ceremony Sunday in which they released balloons, read the names of each of the 11 victims and presented flags to their families.

A year earlier, a modified World War II-era P-51 Mustang veered off course and slammed into a spectator box, killing 11 people and injuring 66 more.

The aircraft was traveling at 530 mph.

Jessica Sanders had left the spectator box before the plane hit. However, the crash site was less than 20 feet away from where she was suppose to be sitting in the VIP area.

When she saw the crash, Jessica Sanders rushed to help injured spectators. The first two she came across were already dead.

The third person she found was a man bleeding from severe trauma to his head and torso.

She tried to talk with him to keep him conscious, but he died within minutes.

She then moved on to a young woman, who she stayed with until paramedics arrived.

As footage of the crash flooded the Internet, many people began to criticize the Reno Air Races, particularly the division in which the P-51 Mustang competed.

It belonged to the unlimited category, where pilots and their crews are allowed to make their own modifications to the aircraft.

The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the practices of the Reno Air Racing Association and the annual competition.

Though the board did not disband the competition, it did issue seven safety recommendations, which included adding space between spectators and the planes as well as tighter regulations on the unlimited division.

Jessica Sanders said that there was never a doubt among Reno Air Race officials that team Big Red would return if the event continued.