NTSB to release recommendations for air races

SANDRA CHEREB Associated Press Published:

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Organizers of the Reno National Championship Air Races will be paying close attention when the National Transportation Safety Board releases its recommendations on air race safety and provides an update on its investigation into last fall's tragic crash that killed 11 people and seriously injured more than 70 spectators.

Deborah Hersman, NTSB chairman, will hold a news conference Tuesday in Reno, though the question of what caused Jimmy Leeward's souped-up P-51 Mustang to rocket straight up before pitching nose first onto the tarmac just feet from a VIP viewing area is still under investigation.

That technical finding could take several more months, officials said.

But the NTSB will recommend safety precautions as the Reno Air Racing Association moves ahead with plans to hold the event this fall at Reno Stead Airport.

The recommendations will also be helpful to organizers of other air shows as the aerial events season begins, NTSB spokesman Nicholas Worrell said.

The Reno Air Races, however, is the only event of its kind, where planes of various categories fly wing-tip-to-wing-tip around an oval, aerial pylon track, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground and at speeds that can top 500 mph.

Leeward's modified WWII-era P-51 Mustang fighter plane, dubbed the Galloping Ghost, hit the ground at 400 mph as thousands of horrified spectators in the grandstands watched. The impact left a crater 3 feet deep and 6 feet across and propelled wreckage over more than two acres.

A veteran movie stunt pilot and air racer, Leeward, 74, died. Ten people were killed on the ground, marking that first time spectators died in the event's 47-year history. Another 70 were seriously injured.

Race organizers vowed the event that draws tens of thousands to the Reno area and pumps millions into the local economy would survive, and tickets are being sold for the 2012 event scheduled for Sept. 12-16. Since it began in 1964, the Reno National Championship Air Races has been cancelled only once, after planes were grounded following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We're very excited about them coming back with some meaningful observations and recommendations," Michael Houghton, president of the Reno Air Races, said Monday.

Besides the NTSB report, Houghton said the Reno Air Racing Association formed its own independent panel of experts, who are nearing the end of their review and will also make recommendations.

He remained confident this year's races would take place, but acknowledged there are still hurdles that need to be cleared.

"It's a stepping process," Houghton said. "It just takes time working through each of the different elements. "We're about halfway ... up the staircase."

The NTSB itself is an investigative agency and makes only recommendations. But the Reno Air Racing Association still must secure licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration and Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority -- two agencies that will likely heed the NTSB's advice. Race organizers also must deal with insurance costs that are likely to skyrocket and $1.5 million in losses caused by the cancellation of last year's event.