Reno Air Races Face Steep Curve With NTSB Requests

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

RENO (AP) - Reno Air Races officials are facing an accelerated schedule and learning curve as they tackle suggestions by federal crash investigators and seek insurance and crucial permits for the only unlimited class, wingtip-to-wingtip flying competition in the
nation.

In nine short weeks, up to 50 pilots are due to take to the
skies at Reno Stead Airport, the site of a deadly crash last
September that killed 11 people, seriously injured more than 70,
and canceled the marquee National Championship Air Races.

"Nine weeks to implement a lot of changes," Michael Houghton,
chief of the Air Races Association, said Wednesday.

The June 13-16 seminar won't involve competition or draw the
200,000 spectators expected three months later for the 49th annual
Reno Air Races. But it will be the first time new and veteran
pilots are expected to fly by rules tailored from suggestions
unveiled Tuesday in Reno by the National Transportation Safety
Board as a result of the crash.

The NTSB focused on course design, pre-race inspections,
aircraft modifications and ramp safety - such as moving a fuel
truck away from the area and installing more substantial spectator
safety barriers.

Houghton noted that the board didn't mandate changes, and hasn't
issued its final report on the deadly crash. He said the Air Racing
Association is awaiting a separate report by the end of the month
from a four-member panel of pilots and regulators established in
January to look at event safety.

"We'd be foolish not to listen to (the NTSB) if they've found
something," Houghton said.

The NTSB also focused on the possibility of requiring pilots to
don g-suits to reduce the effects of gravitational forces, and
on resolving a conflict between Federal Aviation Administration and
NTSB regulations for the distance between spectators and aircraft
whizzing at more than 500 mph past grandstands full of spectators.

No decision has been made about flight suits. But Houghton noted
the so-called G-suits could cost $20,000 each, might require
retrofitting vintage aircraft that weren't initially designed to
accommodate the gear, and could make pilot maneuverability
difficult in cramped cockpits.

Houghton also expressed confusion about the recommendation to
double the spectator safety buffer from 500 feet to 1,000 feet. But
he said that if necessary, he'd change the air racing course before
rearranging seating, including about 3,600 folding chairs in 300
boxes on the airport tarmac in front of the grandstand.

"We anticipate having box seats on the apron again this year,"
Houghton said.

Spectators in those VIP seats bore the brunt of the carnage when
pilot Jimmy Leeward's modified World War II-era P-51 Mustang,
dubbed the "Galloping Ghost," pitched skyward during the
competition last Sept. 16 then slammed nose-first to the tarmac.
The impact blasted a crater about 3 feet deep and 8 feet wide and
scattered metal, chairs and body parts across more than two acres.

Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., was the 20th pilot killed since the
competition began 47 years earlier in Reno. It was the first time
spectators were killed.

Bill Rush, a private pilot and avid Reno Air Races fan from
Boulder Creek, Calif., wondered Wednesday whether the horrific
crash and the intense attention it has received could make it too
costly for Houghton and the association to obtain insurance.

"The obstacle could be that from a financial standpoint it may
not be worth the risk," said Rush, a retired insurance broker.
"The deductible could be too high. Or the cost to the association
could be too high."

Houghton called obtaining insurance crucial to pulling the event
together.

In February, Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority board members
considering renewal of the permit for the air races talked about
increasing a $100 million insurance requirement. In a written
briefing, board lawyer Ann Morgan said a $300 million policy would
be optimum.

"It can no longer be said that a mass casualty has not happened
at the air races," she wrote.

No decision was made, authority spokesman Brian Kulpin said
Wednesday. He said the association asked for more time to respond.

"We've only required $100 million up to this point," Kulpin
said.

The current airport authority permit expires July 1, after the
June pilot training school.

Ticket sales to the marquee event have been slow, but Houghton
vowed that the races will go on Sept. 12-16 with changes, a
required FAA waiver, insurance and a new permit from the airport
authority.

"We're absolutely focused on having the races this year,"
Houghton said. "We're taking every step to work through the myriad
challenges, both recurring and new, to make that happen."


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