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Reno air show should go on despite fatal crash, group says

January 4, 2012 |  3:08 pm

        

This post has been updated. See note below for details.

The Reno Air Racing Assn. announced Wednesday that it would seek to hold another competition for high-performance craft despite last year’s crash of a World War II-era plane that killed 11 people.

Speaking at a news conference, association president Mike Houghton said the group would consult with a panel of experts to try to improve safety at the National Championship Air Races. Among the experts engaged by the association is Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the crash.

“We know there are many people in our organization, our community and all over the world who have been significantly impacted by last year’s tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers remain with them,” Houghton said. “However, we have heard from a vast majority of these people that this event must continue on, and many of our fans and sponsors have volunteered to do whatever they can in order to help ensure the successful continuation of the National Championship Air Races. It’s in this spirit that we’re working towards holding a poignant and successful event in 2012.”

Last year’s races ended Sept. 16 when a P-51 Mustang fighter called the Galloping Ghost crashed into the seating area in front of a grandstand at Reno-Stead Airport. Eleven people died, including the pilot, and 70 were injured.

The craft was piloted by Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., a veteran racer and stuntman. According to reports sent to the NTSB, Leeward had completed several laps then made a steep left turn heading to the final pylon when the craft suddenly turned from the course and began a steep climb.

During the maneuver, a piece of the airframe seemed to separate from the craft, then fell to the ground, photographs and video eventually given to the NTSB showed. The agency cited the material in its preliminary report of the incident; it has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 10 on air shows and races.

The event began more than four decades ago and has been a major tourist draw for the Reno area, generating an estimated $85 million annually, the association said.

Houghton said the group would seek the necessary permits for the event, slated Sept. 12-16 at Reno-Stead Airport. The group also needs to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires an annual plan outlining pilot and craft qualifications and other details.

For the record, 7:15 p.m. Jan. 4: A previous version of this post referred to the Reno Air Races Assn. The group is the Reno Air Racing Assn.

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-- Michael Muskal

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