Training, course changes planned for Reno races

May 23, 2012

The 2012 National Championship Air Races will be flown above modified courses kept more distant from spectators in the wake of a crash that killed a pilot and 10 racing onlookers last year.

Mike Houghton, director of the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA), described planned changes including G-load training for pilots, during a May 22 news conference, according to a Reno newspaper report.

Houghton’s announcement accompanied a blue ribbon review panel’s recommendations for the event’s future. The panel was convened in January to study reforms following the Sept. 16, 2011, crash of 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward’s highly modified, experimental P-51 Mustang into the box seat area at Reno-Stead Airport during an Unlimited Class qualifying round. Leeward and 10 spectators died.

The Associated Press reported May 22 that given the choice of moving grandstands or “softening” some of the turns around the pylon course, organizers opted to modify the course. Details and G-force testing of modified turns were incomplete.

The 2012 races are scheduled Sept. 12 to 16. The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has issued the necessary permit, and the race organizers also announced May 22 that they have acquired $100 million of insurance for the event, which organizers describe as “the world’s fastest motorsport.”

The review panel revealed that it had discussed whether age limits should be considered for race pilots, but declined to make a medical recommendation. Instead, it recommended that the racing organization create a position of director of aerospace medicine to “review areas of pilot age and medical certification, ‘g’ forces, etc., to determine what changes, if any, should be implemented by RARA.”

The panel’s 15-page report recommended that the racing organization “institutionalize its safety culture” with establishment of a director of safety position with a seat on the board of directors—a step that RARA has taken, as the report noted.

The review team also addressed modifications of racing aircraft. While recognizing that RARA is a volunteer organization without technical expertise in all matters related to the six classes of racing aircraft, it called for the organization to review FAA-approved substantiation, testing, and approvals for alterations affecting aircraft weight, balance, structural strength, performance, powerplant operation, flight characteristics, and other qualities affecting airworthiness.

The report pondered the value of full-scale emergency response drills with airport and emergency responders. It recommended a formal process for the ongoing annual reviews of the race course, including pylon placement, altitudes and turns.

The study team requested that RARA provide a progress report on implementation of its recommendations before September 2012.

The Reno Gazette Journal reported that Houghton urged the community to support the event by turning out to buy tickets to help offset the insurance premium increase of $1.7 million for the event this year. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also supported the event in a statement, the newspaper reported.

In April, the National Transportation Safety Board disclosed preliminary findings about the crash and issued recommendations. AOPA reported that the NTSB, which has not yet determined a probable cause of the crash, urged redesign of the course, and called for validating the structure of modified airplanes and preparing pilots for enduring high G loads.

Leeward’s aircraft is believed to have endured loads in excess of 9 Gs just before control was lost. The NTSB presented photographic evidence that he may have lost consciousness, and said Leeward had never previously flown the course at the speeds reached during the accident flight.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.