Published November 20, 2014
Organizers of the national air racing championships secured $100 million in necessary insurance and announced plans Tuesday to change the September race course for the fastest planes to keep them farther from spectators after last year's mass-casualty crash near a grandstand.
Reno Air Racing Association Director Mike Houghton said he'll ask the Federal Aviation Administration for its required permission to move the largest pylon course for the 49th annual championships away from the crowd that typically numbers in the tens of thousands a day.
He said the change would include the softening of some curves to ease the gravitational pull on pilots — including coming out of a stretch called the "Valley of Speed" where planes flying at speeds up to 500 mph gain momentum on the high Sierra plateau north of Reno.
"We had a choice to move the grandstands or some of the racing so we are pushing some of the racing further away," Houghton said.
"It will make the race course on the turn there more consistent and probably less of a g-strain, for the less experienced race pilots," he said, adding that details are still be worked out and subject to testing.
Houghton made the announcements after a blue ribbon panel of experts appointed by the association unveiled its list of safety recommendations, including formalizing plane inspection procedures.
The four-member panel, which included former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall, also advised further study of possible age limits for pilots.
Jimmy Leeward was 74 when his World War II-era P-51 Mustang crashed nose-first into the box seats in on the apron of the tarmac in front of the grandstand on Sept. 16, killing him and 10 spectators and injuring more than 70 others.
The panel "talked at length" about whether age limits or other increased medical requirements should be imposed," said Nick Sabatini, another panel member who worked as the FAA's associate administrator of aviation safety. But he said they decided they were not qualified to make "what are in effect medical recommendations."
Instead, they urged the association to create a formal position of director of aerospace medicine to review areas such as pilot age and the medical impact of gravitational forces on pilots. The panel also recommended creation of a formal director of safety, which Sabatini said is among several recommendations in the panel's report that the association already has implemented.
"Our recommendations focus principally on institutionalizing much of what is already being done," the panel summarized in its report.
Other suggestions included creating an internal evaluation program modeled after the kind airlines use and formalizing inspection procedures to be sure "uncorrected discrepancies" regarding airplane modifications "do not slip through the system."
The association's event at Reno Stead Airport is the only event of its kind, where planes fly wing-tip-to-wing-tip around an oval, aerial pylon track, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground.
Panel member Jon Sharp, an aeronautical engineer and the winningest pilot in the event's history, said he likes the plans for the new course layout for the jets and unlimited class of aircraft, like the P-51 Mustangs.
"If I had to guess from what I know about it, the fans won't notice the difference," he said. "The planes will be a little bit farther away but they won't be little dots."
Houghton said he expects the association to comply with all the safety changes recommended by the panel as well as the NTSB, which continues to investigate the cause of the crash.
NTSB hasn't made clear if it will complete its report before the races Sept. 12-16, but when it does, the special use permit the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority issued last week requires the racing association to meet any additional recommendations.
Houghton said he doesn't anticipate demands that would prevent the event from going forward.
"If (NTSB) had something they felt was going to be a deal-breaker, I'm pretty certain that would have surfaced by now," he said.
The association continues to face financial challenges, having lost about $1 million last year and facing a $1.7 million increase in its insurance premium under the new deal with underwriters, Houghton said. He said ticket sales have been sluggish due to earlier uncertainty about the future of the event. He urged the local community to buy tickets.
In recent years, the races have injected about $80 million annually into the local economy, he said.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the races have been an important part of the community for nearly a half century and that he is "confident it will continue."
He said in a statement from Washington that the recommendations from the blue ribbon panel and the NTSB "will ensure the tens of thousands of spectators can safely watch and enjoy these races."