New course at Reno air races debuts to praise

Pilots offered praise this week for a new course designed to keep them farther away from spectators at the Reno National Championship Air Races after last year's accident that killed 11 people.

Pilots who flew the course for the first time during a training seminar this week ahead of the Sept. 12-16 races reacted positively to it, said Reno Air Racing Association President Mike Houghton. The repositioning of several pylons moves the course about 150 feet farther away from spectators and helps to ease the gravitational pull on pilots competing in the fastest of six aircraft classes by smoothing out some turns, he said.

A modified World War II P-51 Mustang crashed in front of VIP boxes last September at the Reno National Championship Air Races, killing 11 people and injuring about 70 others.

"I don't think it'll have an impact on speeds. (It'll affect) just the G-force pilots feel," Houghton said. "Every change we've made has taken safety to the next level, and this is one of those steps."

Pilot Steven Hinton, who races in the Unlimited class, praised the changes in a Facebook post Thursday.

"Had a great time at (the seminar) and the new course felt good! 89 more days till the races," he wrote.

The competition at Reno Stead Airport is the only event of its kind in the world, with planes flying wing-tip-to-wing tip around an oval pylon track, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground and at speeds of over 500 mph. This week's seminar, which drew nearly 50 rookies and veterans, for the first time offered special training to provide a feel for the gravitational pull pilots will experience when racing.

Pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, was traveling at 530 mph when his P-51 Mustang experienced a significant event that caused the plane to pitch skyward while making a turn, then roll and slam into the ground nose first near box seats. Investigators said instruments from the aircraft showed the plane exceeded 9 Gs, and that appears to have incapacitated the pilot as blood rushed from his brain.

Houghton said the new course is expected to reduce the G-force on pilots in the fastest classes from roughly 3 to 2. It's difficult for people to maintain awareness at 5 Gs. Average roller coasters expose riders to about 2 to 3 Gs, but only for brief moments.

The changes are in line with safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after last year's crash.

Pilot Eric Zine of Los Angeles, who competes in the biplane class, thinks the changes will make the event safer.

"Last year's crash was a one-in-a-million thing that happened," said Zine, a SkyWest Airlines pilot. "I think we took a safe event and made it safer (with the changes)."

Rod Hightower, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, said he enjoyed flying the new course.

"It's a dangerous sport and the risk is there," he said. "But the whole industry worked well with regulatory agencies in coming up with positive changes. We try to move the safety bar up and up."

The cause of last year's crash is still under investigation, and the NTSB is expected to release a final report on it later this year.

This week's training seminar offered pilots a chance to hone their skills before the September event, which attracts the world's top racing pilots.

Houghton said his association is trying to raise money to cover a $1.7 million increase in insurance costs after last year's crash. The organization previously paid $300,000 for insurance.

"We're a $5 million-a-year organization, and that's a significant bump for us," he said, adding a committee has been formed to solicit donations from sponsors and local businesses.