First Suit Filed in Reno Air Race Tragedy

November 2, 2011

The family of a spectator killed in the Reno Air Race crash in September has filed a lawsuit claiming the crash was “the predictable result of a reckless drive for speed by a risk taking pilot and crew, coupled with an insatiable drive for profit,” CNN is reporting.

The suit is the first of many lawsuits expected involving the Sept. 16 crash that killed the P-51D Mustang’s pilot and 10 people on the ground, and injured nearly 70 other spectators.

According to the CNN report, the family of Craig Salerno, 50, of Friendswood, Texas, a dispatcher for Continental Airlines and father of two, is suing race organizer Reno Air Racing Association, pilot James Leeward’s racing team and corporation and two enterprises that modified the plane to increase its speed.

Attorney Anthony Buzbee of Houston told CNN he decided to file the lawsuit now — before the National Transportation Safety Board has determined the cause of the crash — because the NTSB designated the race organizers as a “party” to the investigation.

According to witness accounts, the P-51 Mustang pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white VIP box seats. The plane, flown by 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of “Oh my God!” spread through the crowd.

NTSB officials have been working to determine what caused to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be an “elevator trim tab,” which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.

Investigators said they also recovered part of the tail section, where the tab is located.

Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.

The disaster prompted renewed calls for race organizers to consider ending the event because of the dangers. Officials said they would look at everything as they work to understand what happened.

The Mustang that disintegrated into the crowd had minor crashes almost exactly 40 years ago after its engine failed. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed during an air race and it crash landed short of the runway.

The National Championship Air Races draw thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race. Local schools often hold field trips there, and a local sports book took wagers on the outcomes.

The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots’ practice runs and briefs pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.

Following the incident in Reno, one of the world’s largest airshow insurers drew a distinction between airshows and air races.

Executives at Shannon and Luchs Insurance Agency Inc. acknowledged premiums as well as safety rules could change as a result of public scrutiny over the Reno crash and an airshow crash a day later that killed a pilot, but say they expect little other impact to the airshow industry.

“Like anything else, insurance premiums could go up, but we don’t see any kind of drastic change happening,” Dorian Fernandez, president of Shannon and Luchs, told Insurance Journal Wednesday in a phone interview with her and executive vice president Jim Hamerski.

Hamerski added: “I think you could see more regulation. I think they’ll probably increase the distance between the spectators and the performers.”

Hamerski also noted that speeds reached by aircraft at airshows are much lower than those seen at air races.

“Our performers aren’t flying at that kind of speed,” he said.

In Reno, aircraft reach speeds of around 500 mph. Airshow speeds by comparison are about a fourth, fifth, or even less, than speeds achieved at air races, Hamerski said.

Latest Comments

  • November 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm
    Bill says:
    I've been at the Reno races and I easily understood the danger of having one of these 60 year old planes break and crash. Everyone there understands this risk. This guy paid ... read more
  • November 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm
    Ed says:
    Yes, I agree..the cause of the accident is irrelevant to me as well. I order to fully understand what happened, you would have to have been there. I was there. Galloping Ghost... read more
  • November 4, 2011 at 11:31 am
    Hillsborough agent says:
    The cause of the crash is irrelevant. The point of the suit is that race organizers put fans too close to the course. Judging from the results, I'd say that's a fairly accur... read more
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