Friday, September 23, 2011

Reno crash likely a turning point for air races

Every year for nearly half a century, they gathered in the desert to push the limits of aerial technology.

But one week after a highly modified P-51 Mustang fighter plane nose-dived into box seats at the National Championship Air Races and Air Show north of Reno, killing 11 people and injuring dozens more, the future of the popular event – and air racing itself – is in danger.

"Me, personally, I would say air shows should stop," said Mike Danko, an aviation attorney in San Mateo. "The loss of life isn't worth the benefit. The payoff just isn't there. It doesn't promote aviation. It harms aviation."

Even if air racing survives – and most believe it will – it will likely change to protect pilots and spectators better.

"This is a major turning point," said Jeremy Kinney, curator for air racing at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

"The Reno folks are going to have to think about what (they) can do to improve safety, because these planes are getting consistently faster and they are getting older."

Preliminary findings from a National Transportation Safety Board crash investigation are expected today. But many in the aviation community say photographs taken before impact show a key piece of the plane's tail section – the trim tab – had broken off, which they say caused the plane to veer out of control and plunge into the tarmac.

But did custom modifications to make the plane fly faster contribute to the failure? Were spectators seated too close? Did the event organizer do enough to protect pilots and fans? How did a yearly celebration of speed, innovation and derring-do turn so deadly so fast?

Eventually, such questions will be answered by federal investigators and an expected flurry of litigation. For now, though, most people are still sifting through layers of shock, grief and disbelief.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," said Ron Snow, a pilot and retired salesman from Elk Grove who saw the crash from about 300 yards away. "I was terrified, horrified, mortified. I've never seen anything like that – don't ever want to see anything like that again."

As the plane struck the ground, it exploded into a gigantic grenade-like ball of shrapnel, tearing randomly and savagely through human flesh. "It was like a bomb," said Rich Meyr, a retired pilot from Reno who has attended the races for 35 years. "It was enough to shake the ground."

Seven people – including the pilot – died at the scene. Four others succumbed later at area hospitals. In all, about 70 people were treated for injuries and more than a dozen remain hospitalized. "It was crushing," said Snow, who burst into tears after speaking with a Sacramento radio station after the event. "There was nothing you could do."

Air hot rods

The Reno air race each year draws visitors from around the globe with a dazzling display of airplanes streaking across the desert, competing for $1.1 million in prize money.

"Reno is the top of the line," said Snow. "In aviation, it is the tip of the sword. … There is nothing like this in the world."

The theme of this year's race – No Limits – captured the spirit of ingenuity and experimentation many associate with the sport.

"Air racing is the ultimate expression of our mechanical ability in which you take a technology and hot rod it and go fast," said Kinney.

"It's that seeking of conquering Mother Nature by going fast – and surviving – that's a very distinctive trait, especially for us in the United States," Kinney said.

But of course, some do not survive. The annals of racing are filled with pilots who have perished while pursing their passion. At the Reno race, 20 have died over the past 47 years, including three in 2007. But until last Friday, no spectators had been harmed.

The only other known non-pilot fatalities at an air race in the United States occurred in 1949 in Cleveland when a modified P-51 Mustang plowed into a home, killing a mother and her child. After that, air racing stopped – until Nevada rancher Bill Stead resurrected the sport at a small airport north of Reno in 1964.

What's next?

What happens now is anyone's guess.

In Reno, where the race generates $80 million in revenue a year, most hope the event remains air-borne. "I want to keep it, but I want the safety to be there," said Reno Mayor Bob Cashell.

But others say the danger is too great. "I stopped going to air shows some years ago because they were killing the performers," said Danko. "The entertainment is not worth it."

Last week's tragedy occurred in the fastest and riskiest style of competition, known as unlimited, in which planes more than half a century old are modified to make at them fly at speeds exceeding their design limits.

"Are you going to have members of the public be right up against these aircraft when they are being pushed to their design limits and beyond?" said Danko. "Unfortunately, it's a bad idea."

In a YouTube video, the plane's pilot, Jimmy Leeward, said his crew cut five feet off the wings and shortened the ailerons – the back edge of the main wings used to control balance. The goal, he said, was to make the plane fly faster without a bigger engine.

But at high speeds, such changes can be deadly. Photographs show the tail section's trim tab had torn off, which experts say would have likely caused the plane to veer upward with such force that the pilot probably blacked out.

An eerily similar incident with a P-51 and a broken trim tab played out at the Reno air races in 1998. The pilot lost consciousness, recovered and miraculously survived.

"People say this was a freak accident," said Danko. "No, it was not a freak accident. When you see that it actually happened in the past, it's something to be expected and guarded against."

Mike Draper, a spokesman for the Reno Air Racing Association – which puts on the race – said the organization's focus is now on coping with the disaster's human toll, on grieving and healing.

"We know there are a lot of people hurting," Draper said. "Right now, our focus has been on trying to figure out ways that we might be able to help ease some of that pain and comfort some of those folks. At some point in the near future, we'll sit down and discuss all sorts of things, including how this event proceeds and if it proceeds."

Others, though, said the racing association has taken steps to improve safety, including setting up a pilot racing school and inspecting – and sometimes grounding – planes for safety problems.

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