Red Cross award serves as solemn reminder

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Test pilots are no strangers to tragedy. Few other careers subject men and women to such risk while expecting them to fly in such an exacting manner and to recover in a moment's notice from anything that may go wrong in midair.

But while tragedy was not in the forefront of Lt. Col. Ryan Osteroos' mind on a sunny Friday afternoon in Reno, Nev., the aeronautics instructor and test pilot nonetheless found himself on the front lines of a frantic effort to save lives after a modified P-51 Mustang crashed into a crowd of air race enthusiasts.

The Colorado Springs Red Cross recently named Osteroos its Military Hero of 2011, an award it will present to him at the Anders Hilton hotel downtown March 8. But against the backdrop of the Reno Air Race crash, the award is bittersweet. For Osteroos, it is a cause to remember both those who died and the responders, including Osteroos, the cadets in his aeronautical engineering class and local responders, who kept the death toll from climbing even higher.


The Academy's Aeronautical Engineering 456 course, "Flight Test Techniques," covers fundamental flight test methods for determining performance and flying qualities characteristic of fixed-wing aircraft, according to the Air Force Academy's Fall 2011 Curriculum Handbook. Cadets fly sorties in T-41 Mescalero aircraft here and T-38 Talons at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to learn how to collect flight data.

Cadets who take the course in the fall semester also take a field trip to the Reno Air Races, which are held annually in September. That gives them the chance to interact with the crews responsible for customizing and maintaining the planes that fly at speeds close to 500 mph.

"They like to see us out there, because they know we know what they're talking about," Osteroos said.

It was 3:15 p.m. Osteroos had just cut the cadets loose to tour the "pits" and joined an acquaintance, retired Lt. Col. Carl Hawkins, in the stands to watch the races. The gentlemen watched as the "Galloping Ghost," a customized P-51, began another lap in the race.

"Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it climbing," he recalled. "I watched it for a second, and Hawkins said, 'What is that guy trying to do?' Then we saw it roll over onto its back, and I said, 'Is that guy going to try to pull through?'"

The Galloping Ghost apparently lost its elevator trim tab in the middle of a steep left turn after hitting a spot of turbulence, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report. The plane, originally designed with a top speed of 360 mph, was flying at least 50 mph above that limit.

"The airplane suddenly banked momentarily to the left before banking to the right, turning away from the race course and pitching to a steep nose-high attitude," the report states. The resulting climb would have inflicted at least 10 G's of acceleration on the pilot, 80-year-old Jimmy Leeward.

After the roll, the Galloping Ghost descended toward the ground, headed directly for Osteroos.


The plane pitched over, nose low. Osteroos remembers thinking, "That's right on us. There's nowhere to go."

But the plane picked up speed as it angled toward the ground. The lift along the top of its wings pulled it away from the center of the stands, towards the tarmac.

When the plane hit the ground, pieces of the aircraft spread in all directions. When the debris settled, Osteroos checked Hawkins and the other spectators around him to make sure they were OK. After making sure no one in his vicinity was seriously hurt, he moved for the tarmac to see how he could help.

"I walked up to it and thought, 'Oh, my,'" he said. "I thought I could help by providing self-aid and buddy care, but that's not what I saw."

What he saw, according to his after-action report, was an "area of carnage" in a 50-foot radius centered around the impact site, with about 30 people in "various conditions of trauma."

"I thought to myself, 'Are you going to do this? Yes, you're going to do this. Take a step. Take another step.' It was kind of overwhelming." But once he had taken those first steps toward the accident scene, he was committed.

The first two victims Osteroos tried to help were already dead. The third died in his arms. Nine people total died that day, and two more died later in the hospital from their injuries. He and other volunteers provided the best medical care they could using belts as tourniquets and plastic sheet protectors to treat sucking chest wounds. As trained EMTs and other volunteers arrived, Osteroos continued to help as best he could.

"The ambulances and helicopters that arrived on the scene were bringing enough people to ensure medical attention was at hand for everyone," Osteroos wrote in his report. A triage response was set up, with red, yellow and green response areas that allowed victims to be cared for and transported to hospitals in an orderly fashion.

An EMT placed Osteroos in charge of coordinating transport for victims in the yellow zone. Meanwhile, cadets helped behind the scenes. After rallying at the military appreciation tent and trying to contact their instructor, they provided logistical and security support.

"We were asked to set up a security cordon around the debris about an hour or so after the crash," Cadet 1st Class Bryan Rhoades wrote in his after-action report. Another group provided transportation for the medics who had arrived with the ambulances so that they could return to the local hospitals.


The next day, Osteroos talked with Col. Martin Sellberg, state air surgeon for the Kansas Air National Guard, who had helped him stabilize victims at the scene.

"We lost 11, but he said, 'Think of all the people we did help. Because if you think about the people we didn't help ...,'" Osteroos said.

"I didn't sleep that night," he continued. "I tried to sleep with the lights off that night, but I just couldn't. I kept seeing all the faces of the victims in my mind."

Osteroos remembers the names and stories of those who died that sunny Friday afternoon in September. One, he said, was a custodian working at the event. Another was a first-time race watcher.

He said he was concerned about the cadets' state of mind in the wake of the accident. He asked them repeatedly if they had been exposed to anything that might cause them mental trauma.

"It gave me something to focus on," he said. "I still had a group of cadets that I needed to get safely back to the Academy."

In light of their the victims' deaths, the Red Cross award is not a celebration; instead, it is a call to action.

"I intend to take some time and take EMT classes because I want to be better prepared for situations like these," he said. He added that people should take their self-aid and buddy care training seriously, as it may be the only thing they have to rely upon during a medical emergency.

Osteroos will receive the Colorado Springs Red Cross Military Hero award March 8 at the Antlers Hilton. The 1994 Academy graduate is scheduled to assume his first squadron command this summer when he takes over the 412th Operations Support Squadron at Edwards AFB.