Danger in air again at Reno air races

RENO - The annual air race in Nevada's Valley of Speed has a new name. Fans returning to see vintage World War II fighter planes streak across the sky will sit farther away. And a redesigned course poses less risk as pilots make the final turn toward the finish line.

But for all the changes and new safety measures at the air race a year after a plane took a deadly plunge into spectators, the element of danger remains. Pilots will still be flying souped-up muscle planes wingtip to wingtip, sometimes exceeding 500 mph.

"We never thought what happened last year would happen, but we know it's not knitting," said Marilyn Dash, a biplane pilot from the San Francisco Bay Area who's the only woman in this year's competition. "It's not bowling.

"Nobody ever was killed bowling, were they?"

Organizers for the 49th annual National Championship Air Races adopted a half dozen changes recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board following the crash last September that killed 11 people, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injured more than 70 others.

The course now is more than 1,000 feet from the grandstand, instead of 850, fuel trucks sit away from the landing strip and the final turn of the race is less sharp as pilots head out of the valley on their way to the finish line.

Some of the changes are more obvious than others, including the impact crater on the edge of the tarmac that has been paved over with asphalt and the official name change to the TravelNevada.com National Championship Air Races and Air Show presented by Breitling.

The new name is the result of a one-time, $600,000 sponsorship the state tourism commission extended as a necessary component to keeping the event alive in the face of soaring insurance premiums.

Race organizers hope the most significant changes will be behind the scenes, in training classes intended to better prepare pilots for intense gravitational pull and wake turbulence, and along pit row where mechanics will be subject to a new inspection process that requires follow-up confirmation that ordered repairs actually get done - a possible contributor to Leeward's demise.

"It really seems about the same," said Eric Zine, a pilot from Van Nuys, Calif. "There's increased focus on safety. But we're doing stuff people don't do. It's not normal to try to make a plane go faster than it's designed to go."

The Reno Air Racing Association also established a new position of safety czar with the authority to shut down the competition immediately if any concerns arise.

NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman commended race organizers for steps taken to place even more emphasis on making the event safe for competitors and spectators alike.

"We know everybody is going to be paying close attention to the races this year and that is what everyone wants - for additional scrutiny to occur," she said.

Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and Sparks Mayor Geno Martini plan to help lead an opening ceremony today, the final day of qualifying heats before the six classes of championships begin Thursday and run through Sunday.

"The last year has been a true test to our organization, our fans, both the northern Nevada and aviation communities," said Mike Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association who helped persuade the Nevada Commission on Tourism to pony up $600,000 for the one-time title sponsorship needed to keep the event alive in the face of soaring insurance premiums.

"We will truly never forget the incredible display of courage that was shown in a moment of tragedy last year by the first responders, victims and fans," he said. "It really has been inspiring."

Advance ticket sales are a bit off but Houghton said he's heard from a number of people making last-minute plans to attend and expects swift walk-up sales, with enthusiasm of many loyal aviation buffs never stronger.

Dr. Anne Courtney, an emergency room specialist from Seattle who was at the races last year and helped treat the wounded, didn't think twice about returning.

"We are going to be sitting there in our same box seats we've been in now for the last 20 years. It's kind of like a big reunion. I have no apprehension whatsoever," she said.

Courtney was in her usual seat on the edge of the tarmac about 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 16 when Leeward's P-51 Mustang, the "Galloping Ghost," surged into the air, then turned over and slammed nose first into the box seats on the edge of the grandstand.

"At one point, the plane came down and it looked like it was going to hit us but I think the wind took it a little further. When I made sure everyone in my box was OK, I went down to help - to do what I'm trained to do."

Courtney said one of the couples in their box decided not to return this year.

"The whole memory is just too vivid for him. His dad had died in a plane crash when he was young," she said. "But everybody else I talk to is going back."


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