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.

Photos: Reno air crash

“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 


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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 


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


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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First lawsuit filed in Reno air crash that killed 10, plus pilot

Reno air races crash
The family of a Texas man -- one of 10 spectators killed in the Sept. 16 crash at the National Championship Air Races in Reno -- has filed the first lawsuit stemming from the disaster.

In a $25-million lawsuit filed in Texas, attorneys for the family of Craig Salerno said the crash “was the predictable result of a reckless drive for speed by a risk taking pilot and crew, coupled with an insatiable drive for profit by those who stood to profit from the show.”

The pilot, Jimmy Leeward, was also killed in the crash. The accident occurred when his plane -- a souped-up World War II-era P-51 Mustang -- zoomed skyward, then pitched, rolled and slammed into the box-seat area, where Salerno was sitting. Salerno, a dispatcher for Continental Airlines in Houston and the married father of two young children, was killed instantly, the lawsuit said.

Federal investigators have said they're reviewing evidence that suggests a piece broke off the tail of the plane, called the Galloping Ghost, around the time it suddenly swooped up.

Aviation experts have said that the trim tab -- an aluminum component that helps keep the plane’s nose down -- may have snapped off.  The lawsuit said air show mechanics reported that Leeward’s team had been “having trouble” with the Galloping Ghost’s trim tab.

The Reno Air Racing Assn., which runs the event, was among the parties named in the lawsuit. Its chief executive, Michael Houghton, told the Associated Press that he hadn’t reviewed it yet.

“We fully expect a number of lawsuits to be filed,” he said. “This is the first.” 

The suit also named a number of people who attorneys said helped modify the World War II-era plane to make it fly faster.



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Photo: Debris from the plane that crashed at the National Championship Air Races in Reno is scattered in front of the grandstand. Credit: Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal, Associated Press

Investigators unable to recover on-board video in Reno air crash

Investigators have been unable to recover any on-board video from the wreckage of the “Galloping Ghost,” the World War II vintage racing craft that crashed last month in an air race in Reno.

In a statement released Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was continuing its probe into the accident that killed 11 people, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injured at least 74. The crash rocked the vintage aircraft race world where Leeward, 74, of Florida, was a fixture.

At a news conference last month, NTSB member Mark Rosekind said investigators hoped to find evidence from an on-board data box and video memory cards found amid the debris. But the agency was unable to retrieve any on-board video from the badly damaged equipment, the NTSB said in its statement Friday.

A memory card taken from the on-board telemetry unit is still being examined, the agency said. Also being checked is telemetry data sent from the craft to the race crew on the ground and the dozens of videos and hundreds of photographs provided by race spectators.

After the crash, speculation for the cause fell on the tail and a part known as the elevator trim tab, which photos seemed to show falling off the plane as it climbed.

The craft, a P-51D Mustang, fell head-first and crashed in the tarmac in front of the grandstands.


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Photo: A crowd gathers around debris after a P-51 Mustang airplane crashed at the Reno Air Show on Sept. 16. Credit: Tim O'Brien / Grass Valley Union


Reno, beset by tragedy, mourns air race crash victims

Reno crash memorial

In recent months, northern Nevada has been in a constant state of mourning.

On June 24, a big-rig driver plowed into an Amtrak train about 70 miles east of Reno, killing six people.

On Sept. 6, a man opened fire with an assault rifle at an IHOP restaurant in Carson City, shooting three National Guard members and an elderly woman to death before killing himself.

On Sept. 16, a plane crash at the National Championship Air Races in Reno killed the pilot and 10 spectators and injured 74 other people.

On Sunday, community members gathered to mark this latest in a string of tragedies.

Though most of the dead came from other states, about 400 people huddled in a Reno park at dusk to light candles and dedicate an oak tree to the crash victims. Affixed to the tree soon will be a plaque that reads, “Let this Oak with its strong roots and skyward reach provide respite to all who seek its shade and comfort,” the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

Gov. Brian Sandoval told mourners that the tree would mark a defining moment in the “collective life of a community.” In the crash’s aftermath, first responders rushed onto the airfield to help the wounded, and dozens of medical professionals showed up at a local hospital to volunteer their services.

“The accident at the Reno Air Races will not only be remembered for its sense of loss and tragedy,” Sandoval said, according to the Associated Press. “The people of this community responded with a sense of urgency and a demonstration of our shared humanity that will forever make us proud. It is proper we remember that as well.”

It was a poignant moment, particularly since the region is now reeling from yet another deadly event. On Friday night, a California Hells Angels leader was shot to death in the Reno suburb of Sparks, leading officials to declare a state of emergency and cancel part of a popular motorcycle event.


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Photo: Mourners attend a memorial service for the victims of the Reno Air Races disaster. Credit: Steve Keegan / Reuters

NTSB issues preliminary report in Reno air races crash

Reno plane crash 
Federal investigators are looking into witness reports that suggest a piece of the souped-up plane that crashed at the National Championship Air Races in Reno broke off around the time the aircraft pitched violently skyward, according to a preliminary report released Friday.

The crash a week ago killed the pilot and 10 spectators and injured 74 others, the National Transportation Safety Board said in the report. The brief summary of evidence, which draws no conclusions as to the crash’s cause and contains few surprises, is a prelude to what the agency has said will likely be a wide-ranging, months-long investigation.

Investigators hauled off the mangled P-51 Mustang’s control system and control surfaces from the debris field at Reno-Stead Airport, the report said. They also collected what are likely remnants of the plane’s two recording systems: a forward-facing video camera and an onboard data box.

Investigators are analyzing memory cards that appear to be from the camera, the report said. They're examining the crushed data box, as well. The box also sent information about the plane’s engine and positioning to ground crew members, who’ve turned over that data to the NTSB.

Flown by veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, the Mustang -- called the Galloping Ghost -- had completed several laps around an air course marked by pylons in the day’s last event. The plane made a steep left turn toward the home pylon.

Then, the report said, it banked left, banked right, turned away from the course and shot into the sky. “Witnesses reported and photographic evidence indicates that a piece of the airframe separated during these maneuvers,” the report said. 

Afterward, the plane rolled and pitched. Then it slammed nose-first into the box-seat area.


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Photo: Jimmy Leeward's Galloping Ghost is shown right before it crashed at the National Championship air races in Reno. Credit: Ward Howes / Associated Press

Death toll in Reno air race crash continues to rise, now at 11


Friday's crash of a vintage World War II fighter plane at the Reno, Nev., air races has claimed an 11th life, authorities said.

The higher death toll was announced in a statement Tuesday from the Washoe County medical examiner's office. But details about the death -- including the name of the victim -- were not immediately available, Michele Anderson, spokeswoman for the city of Reno, told The Times.

Authorities are still trying to determine what caused a souped-up P-51 Mustang fighter plane to plow into the ground at the National Championship Air Races, held at Reno-Stead Airport. Dramatic footage shows the plane -- nicknamed the Galloping Ghost -- flying overhead before suddenly taking a nosedive, showering the crowd with wreckage.

PHOTOS: Reno air race crash

Among the 11 killed was pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74. Dozens more were injured, and several remain in local hospitals.

A preliminary report on the cause could be released later this week, but a full-fledged investigation will take months to complete.

Identifying the dead and injured has been complicated as well.

Dozens of people were rushed to area hospitals in the wake of the crash, and the Reno Police Department received more than 1,300 calls from people looking for family members. Authorities have spent the last several days trying to connect relatives with the injured and notify the next of kin.


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Photo: A memorial has taken shape near the entrance of an airport in Reno, Nev., where a vintage plane crashed on Friday, ultimately claiming 11 lives. Credit: Associated Press / Paul Sakuma

Reno air races crash: New footage shows plane slamming into ground

Reno air races crash aftermath

Dramatic new footage (below) shows the moment of impact when a souped-up P-51 Mustang crashed into the ground and exploded at the Reno air races last week, killing the pilot and nine onlookers.

An abundance of amateur footage was captured as the vintage World War II fighter crashed.  Investigators said the vintage racing plane was retrofitted with modern technological devices such as a camera positioned at the front of the plane, and also contained memory card and flight data recorder. It's unclear what information they contain.

The National Transportation Safety Board has collected all these data-recording devices, as well as debris from the scene, as investigators try to put together a timeline of what happened and what went wrong.

PHOTOS: Reno air race crash

In this latest video, aired this morning on NBC's "Today" show, the ill-fated aircraft can be seen circling overhead at a high speed as onlookers enjoy the show.  The video shows the plane plowing nose-first into the ground as people scream and begin to scatter.

The video is likely to be among many that will trickle out over the next few days, released by audience members who turned their cellphones and recording devices on the air show.

The videos and photos could also play a role in the investigation into what caused the aircraft to crash. One possible clue: Photos taken of the plane before the crash show damage to the tail section, although it is not yet known if the damage was enough to cause the plane to lose control. A preliminary report on the cause could be released later this week, but a full-fledged investigation will take months to complete.

Among those killed at the National Championship Air Races held at Reno-Stead Airport: the P-51's pilot,  Jimmy Leeward.

The toll rose to 10 Monday when another spectator, who was being treated at St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, died. Others remain in serious or critical condition.

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Photo: A crowd gathers around debris after the airplane crash at the Reno air races on Friday. Credit: Tim O'Brien / Grass Valley Union/Associated Press

Death toll in Reno air crash rises to 10

The death toll from the Reno air crash has risen to 10, St. Mary's Regional Medical Center announced Monday.

In a statement distributed by email, hospital spokeswoman Jamii Uboldi said another person had died as a result of Friday's crash of a World War II-era plane at the National Championship Air Races, but the hospital did not identify the new victim.

A P-51 Mustang fighter, piloted by Jimmy Leeward, crashed Friday afternoon near the air races' spectator area. By Sunday, the death toll had reached nine.

Photos: Reno air race crash

About 70 injuries have been reported, with about half either serious or critical, according to officials.

Six patients continue to be treated at St. Mary's, one of the hospitals where the wounded were taken, officials said. One patient is listed in critical condition and five in serious condition.

Initially, the hospital received 28 patients for treatment.

Full coverage: Deadly crash at Reno air show

"Given the nature of the accident, patients were treated for injuries due to both blunt force and penetrating trauma. Common injuries included fractures of the legs, arms, ribs and fingers, head injuries, amputations, abrasions, lacerations, and chemical burns," the hospital stated.


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Photo: A crowd gathers around debris after a P-51 Mustang airplane crased at the National Championship Air Races in Reno on Friday. Credit: Tim O'Brien / Grass Valley Union/ Associated Press



Reno air race survivor says he saw plane coming and ran


Sitting in a wheelchair and assisted by nurses at a Sunday afternoon news conference at Reno's Renown Regional Medical Center, Larson said he was grateful to survive, escaping with a severed Achilles tendon, a severe leg wound, a dislocated shoulder and head injuries that required a volley of stitches.

 Larson, 59, a telecommunications entrepreneur, was standing near pit row in box No. 50 and talking to a fellow fan when he heard the audience groan and followed their eyes to the sky. There, he watched the Galloping Ghost suddenly pitch upward.

“The plane was above us to the left and I could see it,” he said. “You kind of get a feeling, the way I was looking at it, that there’s something wrong. It just looked like there was lack of control or something was wrong."

Photos: Reno air race crash

Within seconds, the P-51 Mustang was headed straight for him.

“A lot of the guys hit the deck,” he said. “I ran.

“A second later, the thing crashed right behind me. All I remember is trying to run. I saw stuff coming and that’s the last I remember.”

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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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