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Three local residents often attend Reno air race; one was on pit crew when plane crashed

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Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 8:07 am, Wed Sep 21, 2011.

Terry Tarditi felt the ground shake after watching a World War II P-51 Mustang plummet toward the ground at the National Championship Air Races on Friday.

The crash killed 10 spectators and injured others at the 48-year-old event in Reno, Nev.

Tarditi, the owner of T&T Trucking in Lodi, was working on a pit crew when he saw the plane veer off course, pitch upward, roll over and then plunge to the ground.

While he did not see the plane hit because his view was blocked by tents, he saw the debris fly out onto the runway.

A member of the pit crew Tarditi was working with is an emergency medical technician, and grabbed her bag to race down to the scene.

“She said it was just a war zone. There were people everywhere,” Tarditi said.

The accident happened at around 4:30 p.m. when 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward lost control of a 65-year-old fighter plane and it crashed into a section of VIP box seating. Planes at the races can reach speeds of about 500 miles per hour.

In Lodi, there were at least three local residents who attended the highly competitive air races that week, but only Tarditi was at Leeward’s race.

For Bill Meehleis, his absence was a close call.

For the past 15 years, the owner of Meehleis Modular has never missed the Friday races.

But for some reason, this year he decided not to go and stayed at his vacation home in Incline Village. And even though he gave away tickets to the Thursday races, he ended up holding onto his tickets for Friday.

He usually sits in seat 59. The people who confirm his reservation every year said he would have been 90 feet away from where the plane hit. Meehleis heard that a man who was sitting two boxes away from his usual seats lost a leg.

“I feel very blessed that for some reason we had other things going on that day. ... I feel like some supreme being said, ‘Don’t go on Friday,’” Meehleis said.

‘I know Jimmy wouldn’t have wanted that to happen’

A self-proclaimed “gearhead,” every year Tarditi goes to the races, which feature highly modified World War II planes.

He first got into flying in 1990 so he could fly between his two offices in Lodi and Bakersfield. He started working on Mustangs in the late 1990s.

At the races, Tarditi usually works on pit crews and displays his own Mustang, which he has owned since 2003 when he bought it from David Gilmour, the lead guitarist of Pink Floyd. He named the plane Comfortably Numb, after one of the band’s songs on “The Wall.”

On Friday, Tarditi was working with his fiancee on a pit crew. He has known Leeward for years, and the two were talking about his plane’s new “sleek design” just three to four hours before the race.

Tarditi said Leeward was a renowned, capable pilot who started flying in his teens. He was competitive and very physically fit, but loved having fun and pulling pranks.

Once he heard the plane hit the ground, Tarditi knew it landed close to the crowd. When he saw the emergency crews start flooding the race track, he knew it was serious.

“It’s just terrible. I know Jimmy wouldn’t have wanted that to happen,” he said.

The next day, Tarditi said, only those with pit passes were allowed on the track to prepare the planes to fly home, but no one was allowed near the crash site.

“You couldn’t get over there. The whole thing was cordoned off with guards,” Tarditi said.

For the past seven years, Lodi resident Al Fink has gone to the races as a judge. He stands underneath the course’s markers to make sure no one cuts the course or is flying too low for safety.

Fink is an experienced pilot. He worked for United Airlines as a 747 pilot for 28 years. He also spent 22 years flying helicopters for the military. He did a tour of Vietnam and spent the rest of the time in the Army Reserve.

He was not judging that particular race on Friday, and found out about the accident in his Reno hotel room.

Because the plane plunged straight toward the ground, Fink said it injured fewer people than if it would have hit flat and slid.

While they did not see the crash up close, Tarditi and Fink have watched videos of the plane and both believe a problem with the “trim tab” — which came loose on the plane — caused the crash.

Tarditi said the trim tab acts like the mechanical power steering unit in a car. Once it becomes partially detached, it acts like a kite and ends up guiding the plane, leaving the pilot helpless to regain control, Tarditi said.

Once the plane started climbing in altitude, Leeward probably lost consciousness because of the G-forces, Tarditi said. Once it started plunging toward the ground, Tarditi knew the plane was going to crash.

“I knew he was in trouble. At this point, you could tell there was seriously something wrong. You don’t recover from something like that,” Tarditi said.

Fink has still not heard from several of his friends, including fellow retired United Airline pilots, who have box seating.

“I’m holding my breath waiting to hear from them,” he said.

Since the accident, Fink has continuously watched news coverage and said he was struck by an interview on a Reno TV station.

“A man said he was with two friends from Seattle, and they just disappeared,” Fink said.

Since the race began 47 years ago, 20 pilots have died, including four in 2007 alone. Fink was almost injured that year after there was a mid-air collision while he was judging.

He was standing under both of the planes, and parts started flying. He dove into the ground, which caused some minor cuts and bruises.

“It’s not the safest sport in the world. You know the airplanes are moving 500 miles per hour, 50 feet off the ground, and there is definitely some risk in it — just like NASCAR,” Fink said.

He said all of the pilots are highly skilled and experienced to be able to fly at that speed.

“When you are that close to the ground, things happen really quick, as you can imagine. There is not much room for error,” he said.

On Friday, Meehleis was hanging drapes when his son, Mike, ran out and said, “Dad, there is a crash in Reno.”

He has seen crashes in the past, but they have never been near the spectators.

Meehleis has been a ticket-holder for 15 years, but has attended for 20.

On Wednesday, he went to the races with his wife, Carol, and his youngest grandson, who is two.

‘It’s just a plain fluke’

Even after the accident and considering the risks, Tarditi, Meehleis and Fink hope the races will continue, and said with no hesitation that they would go again.

“It’s like NASCAR. People know the risk. If they don’t understand the risk, they probably should stay home,” Fink said.

After all of the insurance claims, Tarditi said he does not believe there will be enough money for the races to continue.

He said people come from all over to the races because this is the only event of its kind in the world. A spectator has never died at the event.

“This is a relatively safe sport for spectators. It’s just a plain fluke,” Tarditi said.

If the race disappears, Tarditi said it will be a shame because it is a way to honor those who fought in World War II. The event has many restored planes, including Tarditi’s Mustang, that are rarely accessible to the public.

His favorite part of the event is when he gets to talk to veterans. He has had World War II veterans come up and say they flew their 200 missions in a Mustang over Germany.

Meehleis said he hopes they will continue the races because it is an important part of history.

“If it weren’t for that generation who flew those airplanes in World War II, many of us wouldn’t be here today. That’s why they say, ‘Keep them flying.’”

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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