Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Michael Slack: Safer air races are possible

In the wake of last year’s tragedy, something must be done to address safety at the Reno Air Races.

Toward this end, we have filed a public comment with the National Transportation Safety Board advocating for changes that will make the race safer for spectators, as well as racers and support crews.

As a point of full disclosure, we represent some of the spectators who were injured on that fateful day. With this perspective in mind, we would like to see the Reno Air Racing Association invite designated representatives of the private party stakeholders — pilots, crews and racing fans — to begin proactive technical discussions on how to build in adequate safety margins for the various risk scenarios that confront participants and fans at Reno.

In crafting a solution, we believe it is important to look at four major risk categories:

First, organizers of the National Championship Air Races use a “heat” format where multiple planes race against each other. This stands in contrast to the single-airplane, “timed” format used in other air races, which obviously lessens the chance of a midair collision. The risks associated with multiple aircraft need to be properly assessed to determine if racing rule changes are needed.

Second, the safety standards for aircraft are insufficiently defined and monitored. Vintage airplanes like those flown at Reno are often highly modified, exacerbating the flight loads and putting the aircraft under stresses that were not contemplated by designers. Aircraft operating at higher air speeds, such as the unlimited class, should be scrutinized much closer to end to the history of structural failures at Reno.

Third, stricter medical and fitness standards are needed to screen out pilots who present a danger to themselves, other pilots and spectators. These races are very demanding and require pilots to be in optimum physical and mental condition.

Finally, the spectators at Reno are placed in an area that is highly vulnerable to contact with planes or debris if there is a mishap. The energy of multiple planes racing toward the spectator area is an invitation for disaster and is, in large part, why so many spectators were hit by debris in last year’s crash. By contrast, other air races and air shows confine the energy of aircraft parallel to and not directed toward spectator areas. To reduce the risk of spectator injury, the Reno spectator area must be arranged parallel to the direction of flight and at a sufficient distance from the course to provide an envelope of safety from the dangers of impaired or out-of-control aircraft.

There are ways to address the above risk factors while being responsive to desires of participants and those who produce air races. That is a balance that our Reno clients endorse.

At the same time, it would be an even greater tragedy if we did nothing and this happened again.

Michael Slack is a partner at Austin-based Slack & Davis. His comments to the NTSB about NCAR can be read at www.aviation.slackdavis.com

NTSB Identification: WPR11MA454
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, September 16, 2011 in Reno, NV
Aircraft: NORTH AMERICAN/AERO CLASSICS P-51D, registration: N79111
Injuries: 11 Fatal,66 Serious.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On September 16, 2011, about 1626 Pacific daylight time, an experimental North America P-51D, N79111, impacted terrain following a loss of control while maneuvering at Reno Stead Airport, Reno, Nevada. The airplane was registered to Aero-Trans Corp, Ocala, Florida, and operated by the pilot as Race 177 under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The commercial pilot sustained fatal injuries; the airplane sustained substantial damage. Casualties on the ground included 10 fatalities and 74 injured. As of the time of this preliminary report, eight of the injured remain hospitalized, some in critical condition. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, and no flight plan had been filed for the local air race flight, which departed from Reno Stead Airport about 10 minutes before the accident.

The airplane was participating in the Reno National Championship Air Races in the last event of the day. The airplane had completed several laps and was in a steep left turn towards the home pylon when, according to photographic evidence, the airplane suddenly banked momentarily to the left before banking to the right, turning away from the race course, and pitching to a steep nose-high attitude. Witnesses reported and photographic evidence indicates that a piece of the airframe separated during these maneuvers. After roll and pitch variations, the airplane descended in an extremely nose-low attitude and collided with the ground in the box seat area near the center of the grandstand seating area.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration examined the wreckage on site. They documented the debris field and identified various components of the airplane’s control system and control surfaces. The wreckage was removed to a secure storage facility for detailed examination at a later date.

The airplane’s ground crew noted that the airplane had a telemetry system that broadcast data to a ground station as well as recorded it to a box on board the airplane. The crew provided the ground station telemetry data, which includes engine parameters and global positioning satellite system data to the NTSB for analysis. The onboard data box, which sustained crush damage, was sent to the NTSB’s Vehicle Recorder laboratory for examination. Investigators recovered pieces of a camera housing and multiple detached memory cards from the airplane’s onboard camera that were in the debris field. The memory cards and numerous still and video image recordings were also sent to the Vehicle Recorders laboratory for evaluation.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Reno Air Race Association are parties to the investigation.

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