BY LANE WALLACE
“JIMMY NEVER MET A STRANGER.”
Of all the attributes and stories that fellow pilots and friends
remember about Jimmy Leeward, who was killed when his highly
modified P- 51 Mustang racer, Galloping Ghost, crashed at the Reno
Air Races September 16, 2011, that is the phrase that recurs the most.
Jimmy had many other traits and accomplishments for which
he will be remembered, of course. He was a talented and experienced pilot, who’d soloed (illegally) at the age of 14 and, thanks to
the surplus military aircraft business his father and uncle owned in
Fort Wayne, Indiana, owned his own P- 51 Mustang by the age of 18.
He began his racing career flying a Goodyear midget racer at the
Fort Wayne air races when he was still in college, and his first
appearance at the Reno Air Races was as a crew member of lifelong
friend Denny Sherman’s midget racer Little Gem in 1964. Jimmy
went on to become not only an avid air racer and stunt pilot, but
also a dedicated board member of the EAA and a passionate
evangelist for flying in general.
Jimmy polishes his P- 51 Cloud Dancer at the 2004 Reno races.
Jimmy was also something of a rake,
willing to bend a few rules—sometimes outrageously—either to assuage his competitive
spirit or just for good, honest fun. Robert
“Hoot” Gibson, a retired astronaut and fellow air racer, recalled one time at
AirVenture when he, Bob Odegaard, and
Jimmy were staging a mock air race for the
crowd. They were supposed to take turns
winning on the oval course arranged around
Runway 18/36. But once they got in the air,
competitive drive usually overwhelmed the
arrangements, and it ended up being every
man for himself.
One day, Jimmy had asked to win the
race, because his family was there watching.
The other two agreed, but once the race got
underway, Jimmy found himself trailing
badly. So on the last lap, Jimmy simply cut
straight across the course to beat the other
two to the finish line.
Jet and Sport class race pilot Lee Behel
remembered a similar incident when he flew
in a demonstration jet race at AirVenture
with Jimmy, who was flying a MiG- 17.
“He found himself behind, so he just lit
the burner of the jet!” Lee said, laughing,
“It was a demo race. We weren’t supposed
to light afterburners!” But whenever Jimmy
pulled a stunt like that, Lee said, “He’d
come down and give everyone a sheepish
grin, and it was very hard to get upset with
him about it.”
The same was true for Jimmy’s well-
known habit of borrowing from other racers
at Reno. Jay Wisler, owner of an aviation
parts supply business and a friend and
volunteer race crew member for Jimmy,
recalled how Jimmy used to arrive at Reno
with his essentially “stock” Mustang, Cloud
Dancer, with only the few tools he carried
aboard the airplane.
“We got to know everyone’s toolboxes at
Reno, because we had to borrow everything,” he said. “But Jimmy laughed about it,
and we had a good time.”