New film celebrates air racing after tragic crash


(CBS News) The National Transportation and Safety Board Tuesday released an interim report on its investigation into the 2011 air racing crash that killed 11 and injured scores in Reno. Deborah Hersman, NTSB chairman, said, "Our investigation found that this pilot in this airplane had never flown this fast on this course."

The pilot likely passed out after experiencing nine times the force of gravity. The NTSB recommended pilots be better trained and equipped to deal with extreme G-forces.

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The Reno Championship Air Races have been held every year for nearly half a century. But many people never heard of them until a plane crashed into a grandstand of spectators last September in Reno.

At the Reno Air Races pilots pursue each other at 500 miles an hour, as little as 50 feet above the ground. It's like a NASCAR track in the sky.

Steven Hinton, who has won in Reno twice said "You're within 10 to 20 feet of that (other) airplane on the start. And then depending on how close the racing gets, you can be within five feet, wing tip to wing 500 miles per hour. Everything's right on the edge."

Hinton is featured in a new IMAX documentary, "Air Racers 3D," that puts viewers in the cockpit for what's billed as the fastest motorsport on Earth.

In 2009 when he was just 22, Hinton became the youngest winner ever at Reno, breaking a record previously held by his father, Steve Hinton.

Steve Hinton said, "Some people think it's a dare-devil sport, but it's really not. You know, none of us go out there to race thinking that we're just adrenaline junkies. We're out there to try to accomplish something."

In the Hinton family, flying seems as essential as breathing. At the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, Calif., the Hintons restore classic aircraft.

But when he flies, Hinton thrives on the edge of danger. He said, "The engine's like a time bomb, the fuse is lit and you don't know how long it is."

However, the fuse seemed to reach its end in Reno last year when one plane crashed into a grandstand.

Before the crash, filmmaker Christian Fry had just finished shooting "Air Racers 3-D." He'd been a fan for years. Fry said, "It was one of those events when the minute you walk through the gate, you go, 'Wow, this is something special.' And I just knew that I wanted to try and tell a story about it."

But he decided to mention last year's tragedy only in an epilogue. He wanted his film to be a celebration of this unique competition.

When asked if the Reno air races will get more fans because of the possibility of terrible things happening, Fry said, "You know...I think that, that's sort of inevitable."

Since the races began in 1964, 17 pilots have been killed. But never had spectators died since the crash last year. In 1979, Steve Hinton blew an engine during the race. The crash was captured on film and can still be seen on YouTube (Part 1, Part 2). Somehow he survived.

Steve Hinton, 61, said, "It's not really like the movie. I mean, you don't go in screamin' and yellin'. Yeah, you know, you fly the airplane right to the crash. You control it all the way down."

After multiple surgeries, Hinton returned to racing, although these days he leaves the competition to his son.

Steven Hinton said, "Death doesn't worry me at all up there....I don't go up there to die. I go up there to race. I don't think I'm going to do anything dangerous up there. And we practice all the time. ... But it's a calculated risk."

"Air Racers 3-D" can be seen on IMAX screens and in museums around the country.

To watch Blackstone's full report and see what the "CBS This Morning" co-hosts had to say about flying at those speeds, watch the video in the player above.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.