Reno event to return in 2012 in spite of deadly crash

Review board to assess air races' safety

January 4, 2012

Reno Air Races

The National Championship Air Races will return to Nevada’s Reno-Stead Airfield this year after a deadly accident cut the 2011 races short, the Reno Air Racing Association announced Jan. 4.

The crash of a P-51D Mustang into the box seat area during the 2011 races killed 11, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injured more than 70, sending shock waves through the aviation community and casting doubt on the championship’s future. The association said in a press conference that it had formed a Blue Ribbon Review Panel to examine possible changes to enhance safety at the annual event, but confirmed that it planned to hold the races as scheduled Sept. 12 through 16.

“Buoyed by the overwhelming support of the victims and families of last year’s terrible tragedy, our sponsors, air race participants and fans and aviation enthusiasts all over the world, we are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to hold this historic event in 2012,” said Reno Air Racing Association President and CEO Mike Houghton. It’s yet unclear what form the event will take, but Houghton said many of the victims, their families, racers, and fans have told the association that “they are coming to Reno this September no matter what.”

Among those planning to arrive for the 2012 event is Bill Johnson of Wrightsville, Ga., an avid race fan who estimates he was about 70 to 75 feet from the impact site Sept. 16. A longtime attendee of the races, Johnson sustained some shrapnel injuries from flying debris and rushed to the aid of more severely wounded spectators. What followed, he said, was “an amazing show of humanity.” Doctors, nurses, and military personnel rushed from the stands to stabilize the wounded.

“I think the real story is those people that came to the aid of everybody else in the midst of all the chaos that was present at the very moment of impact,” he said, adding that organizers reached out to him and his companions in the days following the accident.

Johnson said the event has a good overall safety record, but some risks can’t be eliminated; attendees walk through the gates knowing the risks of the air sport. He expressed continued faith in the commitment to safety of the association and the racers themselves.

The Blue Ribbon Review Panel, comprising alumni of the NTSB, FAA, and air racing, conducted its first meeting following the press conference and will release its preliminary results and recommendations to the association within 90 days, the association said in a news release. The timeline will allow officials to study the results before the event’s Pylon Racing Seminar in June, although Houghton said the organization “will not speculate on possible changes to the event or the results of either these reviews or the NTSB investigation.”

It’s possible the changes could be significant. The Associated Press reported that two lawsuits have been filed over the crash to date, and the races—which the association said generate an estimated $85 million annually to northern Nevada’s economy—lost up to $1.5 million for 2011. The association said it has begun to initiate conversations with the city of Reno, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, and the FAA about obtaining permits for the 2012 races; but there’s no guarantee it will obtain the waivers necessary for a full-scale racing event.

Still, Houghton said his organization is committed to returning in 2012: “We’ll do whatever we have to do in order to memorialize and celebrate courage, passion and indomitable spirit that is so often associated with aviation but, more importantly, was so vividly exhibited during the accident and the weeks and months since, even if that means just holding a memorial air show.”