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Safety officials call for changes in Reno airshow where 11 died

April 10, 2012 | 12:23 pm

Safety officials call for changes in Reno airshow where 11 died

Federal investigators issued seven recommendations Tuesday to improve the safety of the National Championship Air Races in Reno, where a highly modified P-51 Mustang  plunged into a spectator area last year, killing 11 people.

The National Transportation Safety Board called on the Reno Air Racing Assn. to review its 8.4-mile course to determine if the risk to spectators can be reduced during races of powerful piston-driven aircraft in the unlimited class. Many of them are World War II-era fighters capable of exceeding 500 mph.

NTSB officials recommended pre-race inspections, testing and engineering evaluations to ensure that unlimited-class aircraft can withstand the stresses of high-speed competition. They also called on the racing association to provide training so pilots can better cope with high G-forces that can incapacitate them.

Investigators further recommended safety barriers for spectator and pit areas and that the Federal Aviation Administration review its air race guidelines. The distance between the crowd and race course exceeded the FAA’s minimum requirement of 500 feet during the event, but NTSB officials were concerned that more distance might be necessary because of the race’s high speeds.

“We need to change the playing field so spectators and pilots are safer in the future,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, who chairs the NTSB. “I am most concerned that change occurs prior to the next race in September. These recommendations are common sense and can be accomplished” before that time.

The crash occurred on Sept. 16, when a highly modified P-51D named the Galloping Ghost went out of control during an unlimited heat, shot skyward, then rolled over and  plummeted into a spectator area. The pilot and 10 spectators were killed. At least 60 people were injured.

Though the probable cause has yet to be determined, NTSB officials said an elevator trim tab on the tail broke off causing the pilot to lose control. When the aircraft suddenly pitched up, the pilot experienced at least 9 Gs of force, causing him to either black out or become incapacitated. The plane then rolled over and dove into the crowd.

Hersman said the racing association did not require pre-race testing for older aircraft that had been modified over time like the Galloping Ghost. She noted on the day of the crash, the plane was flying faster and experienced the most G-forces than it ever had.

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-- Dan Weikel

Photo: A P-51 Mustang airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at the Reno Air show on Spet. 16, leaving people 11 dead and at least 60 seriously injured. Credit: Ward Howes / Associated Press

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