Despite Reno crash, aviation groups say U.S. air races are safe
Federal officials investigating a deadly racing plane crash last year in Reno heard testimony Tuesday indicating that the United States has some of the toughest safety rules in the world for aviation events.
Witnesses from the Federal Aviation Administration and private aviation organizations told the National Transportation Safety Board that the government and the air show industry provide significant oversight of shows, races, aircraft and pilots to ensure the safety of performers and spectators.
Unlike other countries, witnesses said that longer distances are required in the United States between spectators and aircraft and that there are more restrictions on pilots doing aerobatics, including prohibitions against flying directly toward spectator areas during performances.
“The U.S. is the most conservative in the world,” said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. “In Europe, there is more of a patchwork of regulations.”
Cudahy added that there have been tremendous improvements in air show safety in the past two decades. The number of deaths involving air show performers, he said, has declined from a high of 14 in 1990 to five last year.
But the witnesses said there is always room for improvement. They suggested to the board that pilot mentoring programs would improve race and aerobatic training and that a certification program is needed for air bosses — the people who run aviation events.
Testimony at the hearing was designed to provide the NTSB with general information about the safety procedures, regulations and oversight of air shows and races.
The board will eventually determine what caused the crash of a P-51 Mustang on Sept. 16 while competing in the National Championship Air Races in Reno, the only event of its kind in the world. If necessary, they will make safety recommendations.
The highly modified World War II fighter went out of control and plunged into the spectator area, killing 11 people, including the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Florida, a veteran racer. Seventy others were injured.
There was no discussion at Tuesday’s hearing directly related to the crash.
Mike Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Assn., which has operated the national championship since 1964, said the organization certifies pilots for the race, reviews the aircraft involved, provides training for pilots and provides emergency services. He said race plans and procedures are submitted to the FAA for review and approval.
“We have 48 years of compliance with the FAA’s rules,” Houghton told the NTSB.
Race officials also testified that they usually exceed the minimum distance requirement of 1,000 feet between spectators and aircraft during races. FAA officials have said the distance was about 1,900 feet for the unlimited heat Leeward participated in.
Houghton testified that since the crash the racing association has established a panel of experts to review the event’s safety procedures. The group includes Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman.
-- Dan Weikel
Photo: A panel of witnesses testifies as the National Transportation Safety Board opened a hearing on air show and air race safety after 11 people died and about 70 more were badly injured at an air race in Reno in September. Credit: J. Scott / Associated Press