Changes at the Reno Race Track?

The National Safety Board’s recommendations may be only the beginning

Jimmy Leeward's P-51, the "Galloping Ghost." Julia Kirchenbauer

On Wednesday the National Transportation Safety Board issued preliminary findings on the cause of the accident that took the lives of race pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators last September 16. Based on its preliminary findings, the Board made seven recommendations to increase the safety of air racing. They all seem reasonable enough, and many race fans, wondering whether or not air racing would even continue after last year’s horrific accident, probably breathed a little easier when they saw words used in the recommendations like “evaluate the feasibility of ” and “develop a system that.” What many of us feared were words like “stop.”

One finding in particular demonstrates the value of external review. It came in a letter to Thomas Camp, the president of the National Air Racing Group Unlimited Division. The raceplanes in this division are almost all modified warbirds, like P-51 Mustangs or Hawker Sea Furys, that weigh at least 4,500 pounds. (Leeward’s P-51 “Galloping Ghost” was racing in this division when it crashed.) In the letter to Camp, the NTSB pointed out that the division’s rules for highly modified warbirds are not the same as those for airplanes custom-built to race in the division. Owners of custom-built airplanes have to prove that their aircraft are structurally sound within the anticipated flight envelope, but the warbird modifications are not required to be flight tested “while operating within the speed and flight regimes that would be encountered on the race course.”

According to Reno Air Racing Association spokesperson Valerie Miller-Moore, the association will consider the NTSB’s recommendations with those of a blue-ribbon panel the association put together last January. That panel, says Miller-Moore, was also directed “to look at the event as a whole, at everything and anything,” and was given maps of the course and layouts of the stands. Members of the panel are race pilots Steve Hinton and Jon Sharp, former NTSB chairman Jim Hall, and former FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nick Sabatini. Miller-Moore says the association expects the Blue Panel report within two weeks. Though declining to specify which ones, she also says that the association has already implemented some of the NTSB recommendations.

The racing association has scheduled the 2012 event for September 12 through 16.