NTSB Hearing Raises Air Race Safety Issues

WASHINGTON, DC - Last week's announcement that planning is underway for next September's National Championship Air Races in Reno answered only the first of many questions raised in the wake of a tragic accident that ended the event.

The accident left 11 dead and 70 injured when amodified P-51 racer slammed into the asphalt and sent debris flying into the box seats at the Stead Airport.

Race organizers answered the first question. They are clearly determined to find a way forward and community leaders are behind that effort.

Still unanswered is whether an investigation will determine the event puts spectators at an unacceptable risk, if anything can be done to lower that risk and if federal officials will mandate changes to make that happen.

At hearing in Washington Tuesday, NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman noted performers understand that danger, but spectators may not.

Air Races President Mike Houghton said under questioning today that spectators may, in fact, accept that risk, noting that a liability waiver is printed on every ticket sold and that policy is posted on signs at every gate.

Hersman also noted that the distance standards for separating the crowd from the action hadn't been changed in more than two decades and indicated the board may be taking another look at those standards.

Given the setting at Stead, the speed and the altitude of the planes, it's may be difficult to imagine how any changes could be made.

One idea that brought general agreement was the suggestion that those in charge...the so-called Air Bosses" responsible for safety decisions at air shows and races should be certified in some manner.

Currently, there is no accreditation process.

As expected, the hearing produced no decisions, but the concerns were obvious. So are the stakes.

There are more than 300 air shows around the country every year. It's a $300 million dollar a year industry.

The fatalities here in Reno added some urgency to these questions of safety, but there were others this past year. Three pilots and two wing walkers died elsewhere. The NTSB currently has ongoing investigations into 11 air show accidents including Reno.

The NTSB typically takes a long time to complete these investigations which often conclude with recommendations.

That's when we could expect some mandates for significant changes.

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