WASHINGTON — It's unlikely there will be significant changes to air show and air race safety rules despite an accident in Reno last year that killed 11 people, a Federal Aviation Administration official said Tuesday.
John McGraw, FAA's deputy director of flight standards service, told a public hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board that the agency is in the process of reviewing its safety regulations in response to an accident last September at air races in Reno, Nev., in which a souped-up World War II warbird crashed in front of VIP boxes, firing debris into the crowd. Besides those killed, about 70 people were injured.
The agency expects to make some changes to clarify its existing safety regulations, but no substantive changes are anticipated, he said.
The Reno accident — the first spectator fatalities at either air races or an air show in the U.S. more than half a century — as well as an uptick in pilots and other performers killed prompted the board to take a closer look at the industry's safety record. In addition to the pilot killed in Reno, five performers — three pilots and two wing walkers — were killed during air shows last year. In the two previous years there were no deaths.
"Air shows in the United States have enjoyed an extremely safe record," NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said. "The performers understand that there are risks by flying at speeds up to 700 mph — just under the speed of sound — 100 feet above the ground and often upside down."
More than 10 million people attend U.S. air shows each year. Industry officials draw a sharp distinction between the Reno air races and the other over 300 air shows held around the country each year.
The Reno races are the only ones of their type held anywhere in the world. A group of planes flies wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.
The Reno Air Racing Association, which sponsors the races, describes them as "NASCAR in the sky."
Air shows are primarily aerobatic performances. They run the gamut from old-fashioned barnstormers featuring antique planes to spectacles staged by the U.S. military employing some of the world's fastest and most sophisticated jets.
Before the Reno accident, the last U.S. spectator fatalities were at an air show in 1951 in Flagler, Colo., where 20 people were killed. That accident led to significant changes in the way air shows are staged, including a requirement that grandstands are kept a distance of 500 feet to 1,500 feet from planes depending upon the aircraft.
The requirements were strengthened after 67 people were killed and another 350 injured in 1988 at a U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany, after the midair collision of an Italian Air Force team performing stunts. Wreckage from the collision landed on spectators. Planes are no longer allowed to fly over crowds at U.S. shows.