STEAD, Nev. – Bob Hoover is an aviation legend who was once friends with Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager and spent 16 months in a German prison camp after his plane was shot down during World War II.
The 91-year-old also witnessed the tragic crash that killed a pilot and 10 spectators two years ago during the Reno National Championship Races, and he described it as one of the worst things he has seen outside of his war years. He thought at the time that the crash would spell the end of the event.
"I did not believe for one minute that we would be here now," Hoover said on the eve of the five-day event that features flight demonstrations, stunts and high-speed races in which specially modified planes fly at more than 500 mph wing tip to wing tip barely 100 feet above the tarmac.
But organizers kept the event going, and they are embracing this year's 50th anniversary of the races as they try to put the tragedy behind. Hoover, listed by the Smithsonian Institution as one of the 10 greatest contributors to aviation history, is among those being honored Saturday night at the event.
Hoover said he's overjoyed that the racing community rallied to support the continuation of the Reno races that began in 1964 and are now host to the only competition of its kind with multiple aircraft classes, including the fastest jets and fighters.
It's part of an effort to ensure the future of an event that looked like a longshot before race officials satisfied the Federal Aviation Administration with added safety precautions last year, and persuaded state tourism officials to pony up sponsorship money to cover a doubling of insurance costs.
"It was important to get last year's event under our belts, part of a healing process," said Mike Houhgton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association.
Houghton expects as many as 75,000 people to visit the 2013 competition through Sunday, for a weeklong, overall attendance of 200,000, compared to about 190,000 last year.
During World War II, Hoover's Mark V Spitfire was shot down off the coast of Southern France. He was imprisoned in a German camp before stealing a plane and flying to freedom under fire from allied troops who mistook him for the enemy.
Four years after his dramatic 1945 escape from Nazi Germany, Hoover was sitting on the roof of a hangar on Labor Day weekend in Ohio watching what would be the last National Air Racing Championships at Cleveland Municipal Airport when he saw pilot Bill Odom lose control of a P-51 Mustang, veer off course and into a home, killing him and two others on the ground.
"The plane snapped and went into a house and that ended the Cleveland Air Races," Hoover said.
He had the same sinking feeling two years ago when he witnessed another vintage P-51 slam into the apron of the grandstand at Reno-Stead Airport, killing longtime Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 people on the ground and seriously injuring scores more.
"We all watched the whole thing as it happened, just appalled at what we were seeing — just devastating," said Hoover, who was in a golf cart near the carnage on the tarmac.
Hoover admits he never thought the competition would get off the ground when Bill Stead — a World War II flying ace, wealthy Nevada rancher and hydroplane champion — first approached him about trying to help persuade casino mogul Bill Harrah and others to revive the competition that hadn't run since the Cleveland crash in 1949.
Stead owned more than 1,000 acres north of Reno that he thought would be the perfect place to build a race course, but Hoover told him Reno wasn't big enough to support such an event.
"I said Reno is just too remote. It wouldn't be financially successful," he recalls. Stead told him, "It will catch on."
"And now," Hoover said, "we've got them coming from all over the world."