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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 7:00 pm

Reno Air Races face steep curve on NTSB proposals

By KEN RITTERAssociated Press

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 flight 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."