Reno air race organizers get OK to continue event

Organizers of the Reno National Championship Air Races cleared a major hurdle Thursday in their bid to continue the annual event this fall, winning approval of a special one-year permit and moving closer to securing the necessary $100 million in insurance in the aftermath of last year's tragic mass-casualty crash.

The future of the 48-year-old competition has been in question since a modified World War II-era plane crashed at the event in September, killing the pilot and 10 spectators, and injuring more than 70 others on the ground.

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority's board of trustees voted unanimously to renew the permit for at least another year as long as organizers follow all federal safety rules. That will include any new recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board when it completes its investigation of the crash, something that may not happen until after the races Sept. 12-16.

Besides providing proof of $100 million in insurance, the Reno Air Racing Association must cover any increase in the airport authority's own insurance premiums under the terms of the permit the board approved Thursday.

"All risk must be borne by the Reno Air Racing Association," said Ann Morgan, the board's legal counsel.

The association's current five-year permit expires in June.

Mike Houghton, the association's chief executive, noted the racing group must secure the insurance for the fall championships before next month's pilot training session that is mandatory for all competitors. But he said he was confident he could finalize it next week.

"We're 99 percent there," Houghton told The Associated Press. "We've been lining up underwriters to take portions of the $100 million.

"I would anticipate that by Tuesday we'll have them all in place and we'll be real close to being able to hand an insurance certificate off to the airport."

But Houghton said other challenges remain.

"It is going to be a continually long and arduous task to get to September," he said. "Our hurdles, we keep leaping and just barely clearing them. ... If anytime in our history we needed community support it is this year."

Houghton said he expects the association can comply with all the NTSB's recommendations. He said the one sticking point could be the recommendation that the group "evaluate the feasibility" of pilots wearing special flight suits to reduce the effects of gravitational forces.

If use of the so-called "G'' suits proves feasible, the NTSB urged the group to make them mandatory.

Houghton said that directive is "pretty broad and pretty wide open." He said he's been talking with pilots about the pros and cons of the suits, which can cost more than $20,000.

Houghton said he plans further discussion with the Federal Aviation Administration and its medical department about whether use of the suits at the competition is "reasonable or feasible." But he said his best guess is they do not become mandatory.

The National Championship Air Races feature planes flying wingtip-to-wingtip around an aerial track at Reno-Stead Airport, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground at speeds above 500 mph.

Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., became the 20th pilot killed at the competition in the Sept. 16 crash, but it was the first time spectators were killed since the races began. He was flying a modified World War II-era P-51 Mustang, dubbed the "Galloping Ghost," when it slammed nose-first into the edge of the private spectator boxes on the apron of the grandstand.

The impact blasted a crater about 3 feet deep and 8 feet wide and scattered debris across more than two acres.