Jimmy Leeward, 74, real estate developer, pilot from Ocala Florida flew his last flight at the Reno Air Races on September 16, 2011. The last flight was magnificent. Leeward started the race in fourth place heading for 2nd or even 1st before his dream ran out. Leeward surpassed many expectations and proved what he had been working on was real.
He began flying with his father Albert Leeward as a toddler. Dad would teach Jimmy about flying and when World War II was over, he soloed an AT-6 at age 14! He began twin engine flying and soloed a Cessna T-50 Bamboo Bomber at 16. Jimmy married his high school sweetheart Bette. On their first date Jimmy took Bette up for a flight. They moved to Ocala Florida in 1962.
He worked as an aviation "stunt" pilot flying for the movies (remember the photo from The Tuskegee Airmen) and as a real estate developer. He created the Leeward Air Ranch which is a 50 acre aviation community with house sites on or near the taxiways that lead to the beautiful grass strip - sounds awesome. He worked with his son Dirk on the Air Ranch for many years.
He was at the very first Reno Air Race in 1964 as a crew member. Needless to say, the fire was lit and that fire would never go out. In fact that fire grew and grew. Leeward worked hard and in 1974 he purchased his first P-51 Mustang. She would be mostly known as "Cloud Dancer", race #9. He raced her for many years at Reno and flew Cloud Dancer to numerous airshows around the USA.
His first unlimited race was at Reno in 1975. Race #9 was known then as Miss Florida. Jimmy qualified at 366 mph as a rookie. He has raced at Reno since 1975 missing only a year hear and there until 1990 where he sat out until racing again in 1995. He raced the Galloping Ghost when it was known as "Specter" and then "Leeward Air Ranch Special" in the late 1980's. Specter was silver and the Special was a bright yellow.
Jimmy Leeward is very unassuming but a fierce competitor. He liked going fast. He loved racing and he loved aviation. He began his dream to bring back the Special as the Galloping Ghost in the mid 2000s. There was a ton of work to do and Leeward wanted to improve on the sleek racer. Many systems were rebuilt and restored. Shortly before the air races in 2009 Leeward and crew trucked all parts and pieces to Minden Nv for final assembly and test flights.
Leeward wanted to be fast and decided that a boil-off system for engine and oil cooling was the way to go. This is an in depth modification as the P-51 scoop is removed (thus cutting drag) and a completely new cooling system put in place. This has been done before but only a few times.
Time was not on their side, but they worked long, long days. Still time was not on their side, but they kept on going. Eventually time won this battle as the Ghost did not make the Reno Air Races in 2009. Close ... so close. A short time after the races, the Ghost did get finished and did fly. Now they have the luxury of plenty of flight testing time before September 2010.
Jimmy was very good at keeping the suspense going. Everyone wanted to see his newly re-created P-51 racer and they wanted to know how fast it would go. Surely we would find out during race week 2010. Leeward came to Reno in 2010 turning heads and gathering huge crowds. He was an instant favorite, a dark horse that could take out the champ, #7 Strega. Leeward did not qualify, so he started last place on Thursday. He quickly toyed with the Medallion race flying Dan Martin's wing in the stock Grim Reaper. When it was time, he passed the whole field for first.
Jimmy won each race he was in but did not have to go very fast to do so. We are going crazy! We want to see the Ghost go fast! I can see Jimmy smiling and saying something like "you will ... you will." Leeward wins all his races leading up to a showdown of unknown proportions for Sunday. Nobody knows what he can do. We know he has the skill, experience and fire to challenge the top racers. He has been racing unlimiteds since 1975. Sunday comes in 2010 and it is windy, very windy. The Gold Final is canceled for 2010 and all of wait impatiently for 2011. Noooooooo!
On September 16, 2011 Jimmy Leeward showed us the potential of The Galloping Ghost. Not only is she a beautiful racer, but she was fast - fast enough to bring home gold. Leeward left no doubters that he and his team created one of the fastest racers of all time at Reno. Congratulations!
Jimmy was born on October 21 1936 and lived a full life. He left us at the age of 74, still brewing with life and excitement. He was a family man and loved his wife, children and grandchildren. He involved many of them in his aviation activities. He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Bette, his children, Dirk, Kent, Tracy and Chad and several grandchildren.
He was very active in his community and had aviation friends around the country. Leeward has flown over 250 different aircraft and flew in the filming of several movies, the latest was "Amelia". He is missed by so many of us aviation nuts and air racing fans. Warbird aviation and air racing at Reno will be very different without him. Every time we hear the crackle of a Merlin or see a P-51 low, tight and fast we will be thinking of all those fond memories of our friend Jimmy Leeward.