Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tough Questions Asked as Reno Air Race Tragedy Unfolds

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The death toll is now at 10, and more questions are being asked about the safety of air races like this one.

The very thing that makes the National Championship Air Races so popular — the thrill of vintage airplanes roaring wingtip-to-wingtip at 500 mph within yards of a cheering crowd — is the thing that may doom the 48-year-old event.

Friday’s crash so far has claimed 10 lives, left two people missing and scores of spectators injured, seven critically. Reno’s oval pylon-to-pylon air race, a sport pre-dating World War I, is the last such competition in the nation.

Local and federal officials said the race should be made safer. But an air race historian, who called Friday’s crash the worst accident in the history of American air racing, said that probably isn’t possible.

“You can move the crowd further away, you can move the course to a remote location, but that defeats the purpose of the races,” said Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official. “But you can’t have an air race without spectators. Who is going to want to see it from a distance?”

Safety could be the main issue in determining the race’s future. Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority officials said Monday that, as owner of the Stead Airport, they will be examining the federal investigation of Friday’s crash to determine whether further safety requirements can allow the event to continue.

It's something that will have to be considered as the NTSB continues to investigate what happened and why. There are already threats of law suits being made, which is understandable considering the latest update on casualties from Friday's tragic crash.

Honestly, I'm still trying to sort all of this out for myself. This has been a Northern Nevada tradition for half a century. But this time around, that tradition turned fatal. This won't be an easy decision for any of the folks who will have to determine the future of the Reno Air Races. And this certainly won't be easy for the families who loved aviation so much, then lost their loved ones last Friday at this event.

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