The weather was perfect for spectating that afternoon; scattered clouds, with a high of 81F degrees and a slight wind from the north. It was Sunday, September 16, 2011, and the last day of the Reno Air Races. More than one-hundred thousand people attended the event that year. Seating ranged from general grandstands to VIP box seats out on the tarmac for those wanting an unobstructed view. The “track” is outlined with pylons—“sticks”—made from fifty-foot tall telephone poles with brightly painted drum barrels attached at the top. The pilots must fly on the outside of these drums or face penalties. Like most races, several classes hold races throughout the weekend. Each class has a set of requirements that includes everyone racing the same type of plane. The fastest, the “Unlimited Class,” features mostly planes from World War II but modified to race allowing them to fly more than 500 mph. Common aircraft in this class include F-8F Bearcats, Hawker Sea Fury, and the P-51 Mustang.
In preparation for the Reno race, James Leeward and his crew modified a P-51 Mustang. The aircraft had a long history of being used in racing, going back to 1946. James and his crew purchased the plane and made—as he called them—“radical modifications” that included clipping the wings and making significant changes to other systems in the plane to trim weight, increase power, and reduce aerodynamic drag. After the modifications, the plane named The Galloping Ghost flew at a top speed of 530 mph, roughly 40 mph faster than previously flown.
On that Sunday afternoon in 2011, the last race of the day—the Unlimited class—got off to a start. After a few laps The Galloping Ghost held third place. As it passed the 8th pylon, a reused “single-use” locknut broke, causing the left elevator trim tab to fail. The aircraft left the circuit to climb quickly, rotate, and then plunge at 17g towards the ground almost perfectly perpendicular into the tarmac. The plane impacted right in front of a section of the box seats where Gabe (my father-in-law-to-be) was watching the race with his friends.
There was no fire. The plane disintegrated instantly into pieces that covered an area equivalent to two acres. People sitting in front of and behind Gabe died instantly—vanishing into bits so small identification was not possible. Eleven people (including the pilot) died, and sixty-nine suffered life altering injuries, including Gabe, who avoided fatality by mere inches—though he didn’t walk away unharmed. He went through life-altering changes that required years of rehabilitation. But Gabe fought on to recover and lead an everyday life.
To Gabriel Fernandez, aviation was everything. Growing up in San Jose, California, he dreamt of nothing else but being a pilot. And he loved reading about the air races as a child in the 1950’s. As he got older, Gabe paid for flight lessons and earned his pilot’s license, and joined the Air National Guard. After serving his country, Gabe joined Northwest Airlines and quickly worked his way up to captain flying International routes to the East. After 9/11, Gabe didn’t feel the preventative measures to protect fly crews by the FAA were enough, and he retired from commercial service.
I didn’t know any of this when I first met Gabe. He was friendly but quiet and stayed in his lane. When I heard that he had been a commercial pilot, I got excited and prodded politely for stories. The first few times, he responded that it was nothing and kinda boring like “driving a bus.” He’d joke that all he did was set the auto-pilot, read a book, and take a nap. But eventually, I found a connection that later helped unlock a story or two. Not sure how this came up, but Gabe and I shared one thing in common: We both worked as a grocery store clerk while attending high school. And we agreed that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had to go back to that line of work one day because it was a lot of fun.
Later I would learn that Gabe flew servicemen and women in and out of Vietnam during the war. He would share stories of his flights to Japan, where his navigator would insist on taking him to weird places to get sushi. And there was the story of the time when he met Chris Farley, who was flying in first class to Chicago completely bombed. His work with Northwest Airlines was only a part of what made Gabe a full-blooded aviator. When he wasn’t flying commercially, he flew one of his private craft around the Pacific Northwest, and he’d also fly down to California to visit his mother. No matter what aircraft he was in, Gabe loved to fly. And as I’ve heard it, he was working on one of his planes on the days he wasn’t flying.
One afternoon last fall, I finally got a tour of Gabe’s hangar at Paine Field. Though the airport now hosts commercial service, it was a field for light aircraft and manufacturing (notably where Boeing assembled the 747 starting in the 1960s) when Gabe and his friends built small plane hangers and formed an association decades ago. After getting through the big gates, we drove very slowly along rows of Boeing KC-46a refueling tankers awaiting final assembly and delivery to the Air Force. While I sat in awe to be so close to these large aircraft, Gabe grumbled that you could use all of the airport’s runways before Boeing arrived, whereas today, only North-South was open. We got to the hanger and entered through the side door. It was pitch black until Gabe walked over to a panel, punched in a code to turn off the alarms, and hit another button that engaged the large hanger doors. As light poured in, the contents of the hanger started to take shape. Gabe had several planes, each of them carefully acquired with a particular reason why he had each one. Despite their age, each aircraft was in immaculate shape, looking brand new. And near each plane was at least one project in various states of progress. I recall wire, miles, and miles of wire—all kinds—on spools big and small. Everything in the hanger had a specific spot to make the maximum use of the square footage. Gabe squeezed in a full tour as the sun started to set, and our primary light source started to wane. On the way out, we drove past more large jets in different states of assembly. And again, Gabe grumbled about Boeing and how the commercial flights would ruin what made Paine a unique field for such a long time.
Unfortunately, that was the last time I had the chance to hang out with Gabe at the hanger. Quarantine was in effect when he and my mother-in-law returned from California for the winter. Even then, we kept our distance to play it safe. As time went by, we got together two more times, including an afternoon in which Gabe and I spent time pouring over a couple of aviation coffee table books on airships from the early 1900s to the Boeing 314 Clipper, the plane that turned Pan-Am into a global carrier and brand. He loved talking about airplanes, and I was happy to listen while he imparted his knowledge.
Last month, on the afternoon of November 11, 2020, Gabe moved the 1965 Piper Twin Comanche and took his 1987 Van’s RV-4 for an afternoon flight before he and my mother-in-law were to head back south for the winter. At some point early in his flight, Gabe suffered a severe stroke. He knew something was wrong but couldn’t immediately tell what happened. Somehow, Gabe managed to stay alert and aware enough to radio the tower at Paine Field and land his plane safely. A few buddies from his hanger association came over to his hanger, noticing that uncharacteristically, Gabe wasn’t gone for very long. They found him confused and unable to speak coherently. However, he made it clear that the planes had to be stored before allowing them to call emergency.
Sadly, the stroke Gabe suffered was deep inside his brain. In the beginning, we all thought this might be recoverable, but every twelve hours, his condition grew worse until he lost consciousness and passed away seven days later. It’s so crazy how fast things happened, though it could have been worse. I have a hard time processing how he managed to land his aircraft but Gabe was first and foremost about safety and I know he would have done everything in his power to avoid the fatality of others.
It still hasn’t hit me fully that he’s gone. This year in COVID has been in such isolation that we’ve hardly spent time with anyone. So it feels like everyone is gone. When the family is able to get back together again there will be a huge Gabe sized hole and that will be difficult to comprehend. He was one of a kind—the absolute personification of the saying “do what you love.” I didn’t get enough of this pilot and his stories. I’m hopeful that some new ones will emerge as we unpack that part of his life as a life long aviator stored in the planes, books, and magazines that he collected over the years.