RENO, Nev. (AP) — The vintage World War II fighters roaring out of the Valley of Speed are as loud as ever, their colorful paint jobs as bright as the enthusiasm of the loyal aviation buffs who fill the grandstands in Reno.
But it’s not exactly business as usual at the 49th annual National Championship Air Races, which kick off this week. The element of danger persists despite new safety measures put in place after a P-51 Mustang took a deadly plunge into spectators last year. Pilots will still be flying souped-up muscle planes wingtip to wingtip, sometimes exceeding 500 mph.
“We never thought this would happen, but we know it’s not knitting,” said Marilyn Dash, a biplane pilot from the San Francisco Bay area. “It’s not bowling.
“Nobody ever was killed bowling, were they?”
Race organizers 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.
A reminder of the danger came Tuesday during qualifying heats for the fastest planes when the pilot of a vintage Hawker Sea Fury was forced to make an emergency landing. He escaped uninjured after the hard landing kicked up a cloud of dust visible from the grandstands.
The qualifying heat resumed in the unlimited class, where two-time national champion Steve Hinton Jr. posted the top speed of 493 mph earlier in the day.
But there are differences from last year. The course is now more than 1,000 feet from the grandstand, instead of 850; fuel trucks are set away from the landing strip; and the final turn of the race is less sharp.
Some changes are more noticeable than others. The impact crater from last year’s crash on the edge of the tarmac that has been paved over with asphalt, and the race officially changed its name to “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 necessary 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,” 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 who has the authority to shut down the competition immediately if concerns arise.
NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman commended race organizers for steps that place more emphasis on making the event safe for competitors and spectators alike.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and Sparks Mayor Geno Martini plan to help lead an opening ceremony Wednesday, 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.
“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.
A tribute for first responders was planned for Thursday, and the victims and family members will be honored during an event on Sunday.
Advance ticket sales for the races have been off, but Houghton said he’s heard a number of people are making last-minute plans to attend and he expects swift walk-up sales.
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 seat on the edge of the tarmac about 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 16, 2011, when Leeward’s Galloping Ghost surged into the air, then turned over and slammed nose first into the box seats on the edge of the grandstand.
Despite the changes, critics remain dissatisfied with what they call continuing safety deficiencies at the air races. One of the most vocal, Mark Daniels, wants the pilots in the fastest planes to be required to wear anti-gravity suits like they do in the military to keep them from blacking out, as Leeward did.
The former Army helicopter mechanic and air traffic controller also thinks it would be safest to have the grandstand in the infield because the centrifugal force of planes sends them toward the crowd when they lose control.
Daniels has been banned from the grounds and believes it is because of the criticism — something he’s suing over in federal court.
Houghton said the ban is based on threats Daniels has made to him and others and has nothing to do with the criticism.
Daniels said he understands why last year’s tragedy hasn’t dampened many fans’ fascination with the only event of its kind in the world.
“They don’t think it could happen again — that lightning could strike twice,” Daniels said. “And they love air racing. It’s the air racing bug. When it bites you, there is no quitting it.”
A brave girl jumps from the rocks on the west side of Tubbs Hill as her two friends watch. (Don Sausser/Facebook photo)
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