WASHINGTON — It's unlikely there will be significant changes to air show and air race safety rules despite an accident 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. A souped-up World War II warbird crashed in front of VIP boxes, sending debris into the crowd. Besides those killed, about 70 people were injured.
If the FAA becomes aware "of a risk that exceeds the boundary of what we think is acceptable, we will make those changes. But not currently," McGraw said.
The agency does expect to make some changes to clarify its existing safety regulations.
The Reno accident — the first spectator fatalities at either air races or an air show in the U.S. in 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 $300 million-a-year 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.
"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," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said.
But spectators "are coming to be entertained, and they don't expect to be in a situation where their lives are at risk," she said.
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 more than 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 featuring U.S. military teams like the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels.
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 weight and speed of 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.
But pilots and other performers are killed nearly every year. Since 1986, there have been 152 air show and air race accidents in the U.S., including 75 fatal ones, according to NTSB. The board is currently investigating 11 air show-related accidents and incidents, including the Reno accident.
Hersman noted that standards for the distance crowds must be set back from planes at the Reno air races haven't been changed in more than two decades although the aircraft have changed.
"That is something we will be looking at," she said.
Board members expressed surprise that FAA relies on air shows to a large degree to police their own safety. McGraw said the FAA approves each show's overall safety plan and has inspectors on site at the Reno air races. But air shows and races decide which pilots are qualified to perform.
Those and many other safety decisions are the responsibility of air show "bosses." But the FAA doesn't have an accreditation process to determine who is qualified to be an air show boss, witnesses said.
George Cline, president of Air Boss Inc., said that's something the industry would welcome if FAA officials are willing to set it up.
"That would make air shows safer," Cline said.
Pilot Sean Tucker, a star air show performer, said it's "too easy" for pilots to become entry-level air show performers and the standards should be higher.
National Transportation Safety Board http://www.ntsb.gov
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