Reno Air Race Officials Mull Options After Crash

December 19, 2011

A formal announcement will be made in January concerning the future of the National Championship Air Races after a Sept. 16 crash killed 11 people and injured more than 70, organizers said Friday.

The future of the races has been in doubt since a P-51 Mustang crashed and killed 10 spectators and the pilot, Jimmy Leeward. Others were sent to the hospital with critical injuries.

At least two suits have been filed by spectators, or their families.

A suit was in late November by a law firm on behalf of Gerry de Treville of Ukiah, Calif., a spectator who lost his eye when a vintage plane during the Reno National Championship Air Races. The suit claims the air racing organization was negligent and the aircraft was too dangerous to fly so close to spectators.

The family of Craig Salerno, 50, of Friendswood, Texas, a dispatcher for Continental Airlines and father of two, is also 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.

The Reno Air Racing Association hasn’t made a decision on the fate of the event, spokeswoman Tara Trovato said, and a January news conference is planned to announce the next steps in the process confronting its board.

Among other challenges, the board must secure licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration and Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, and deal with $1 million in losses caused by cancellation of the 2011 event after the crash as well as insurance costs.

“There’s been tremendous support from the public to continue holding the air races, but there are so many different hurdles the organization needs to get through to hold it in the future,” Trovato told The Associated Press. “Once we finalize all the details, we’ll have some formal announcements to make in January that will address the future of the air races.”

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported Friday that if the air races can’t be staged, organizers plan to hold a “world-class” air show or memorial for victims of the crash.

Michael Houghton, president and CEO of the races, said public support to continue the 47-year-old competition is strong.

“That’s not just the desire of our organization, but that’s the desire of hundreds of people in this community and of people in aviation,” he told the Gazette-Journal. “In the short term, (continuing the races) is about money. In the long term, the question is when all the dust settles, are we still here?”

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said organizers must develop a comprehensive plan each year that includes requirements for pilot and aircraft qualifications, and a detailed course layout.

“We always held the Reno Air Racing Association to the highest standards,” he said, adding he doesn’t think the group has submitted an application to his agency for the 2012 event yet.

Airport authority spokesman Brian Kulpin said the association’s 10-year special event license to hold the air races at Reno-Stead Airport expires June 30, 2012, and it has not yet sent a 2012 proposal to the authority’s board.

Kulpin noted the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to issue a report on the crash next year, and NTSB board members will hold a Jan. 10 hearing in Washington, D.C., to examine the safety of air races and air shows. Houghton has accepted a request to testify at the hearing.

“So there are a lot of factors going on. There’s a lot of things to consider in coming months but no proposal at this point,” he said.

The competition is like a car race in the sky, with planes flying wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

Reno has the world’s only multi-class air races, with six classes of aircraft competing, said Don Berliner of Alexandria, Va., president of the Society of Air Racing Historians. Air races elsewhere involve only a single class of aircraft, he added.

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