WASHINGTON — Representatives of the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) on Tuesday told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that the National Championship Air Races held annually at Reno-Stead Airfield meet federal safety regulations, while also acknowledging that more might be done to ensure the safety of both pilots and attendees.
RARA has established an independent review panel to recommend safety upgrades for the air races, but organization officials outlined several areas where the event already meets or exceeds Federal Aviation Administration standards.
For example, training seminars for new pilots, a course setback from spectators of 1,000 feet, an average debris scatter radius standard and pre-flight technical inspections of all racing planes are among the “extremely large and complex” safety protocols undertaken by RARA, said president and CEO Mike Houghton.
Some adjustments to the course, such as the takeoff direction, were implemented following a crash at the air races in 2007.
The hearing to review safety procedures and mandates applied to air races and air shows across the country was sparked by the plane crash at September’s air races, which killed 10 spectators and injured 70 more.
The NTSB investigation into the crash remains open and the agency is expected to release its final report on the matter later this year. NTSB officials are expected to recommend safety changes to how air races and air shows are conducted.
Mandating certification or licensing for “air bosses,” who oversee operations at air races and air shows, could be one of the first changes.
The fact that no such licensing program exists troubled some NTSB officials.
“That disturbs me,” board member Robert Sumwalt said.
Houghton dismissed inquiries into whether purse money for race winners might “over-incentivize” pilots, perhaps jeopardizing their safety.
“They aren’t in it for the money,” he said, adding that pilots typically spend more money attending the races and preparing their planes than they could possibly win back.
While acknowledging inherent safety risks, NTSB officials expressed concern about the fact that many of the regulations governing air races and air shows were adopted in the 1950s.
“Performers are assuming a certain level of risk,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said. “We understand that. But when spectators come to an event, they are coming to be entertained. And they don’t expect to be in a situation where their lives are at risk.”
FAA officials said Tuesday they would be clarifying language that regulates air races and air shows and would also implement additional training for its plane inspectors.
RARA announced last week that the National Championship Air Races, which bring an estimated $85 million boon to the regional economy, would return this year, though perhaps in modified fashion.
Chris Baum, president and CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, said his organization would continue to promote and market the air races despite the tragedy at last year’s event.
“The Reno air races are such a unique event … that it would surely be something we want to preserve,” he added.
Baum said RARA has a proven track record in meeting safety regulations and that, despite recent setbacks, the air races can continue to grow and be an important cultural and economic force in northern Nevada.
“(RARA) is not preserving revenues at the risk of people,” Baum said.