Do Something

Washington struggles for a response to last year’s Reno Air Races crash

NTSB member Robert Sumwalt at today's hearing.

As far as Washington hearings go, today’s National Transportation Safety Board panel on air race and air show safety was cordial. But the questions and answers suggest a battle brewing.

Panelists, including FAA officials and air show professionals, described procedures and regulations already in place to assure safety at shows and races. Board members were, politely, looking for more—some response to last year’s terrible show season, when a pilot and 10 spectators were killed at the Reno air races and five pilots were killed in airshow crashes. It appears that just strengthening existing procedures may not cut it.

The sternest moment of the morning session came when NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman pressed Reno Air Racing Association officials to explain how the prescribed 1,000-foot buffer zone between spectators and the race track had been decided. She assured RARA president Mike Houghton and rules chairman Michael Major that this was an area the NTSB would look into.

Several board members wondered whether special medical certificates should be required for the more physically demanding flying done by racers and show pilots, and that’s a good point. Others questioned FAA Flight Standards officer John McGraw about how much oversight the FAA had delegated to airshow professionals in certifying pilots and aircraft. A reasonable concern, although one would think that airshow professionals are precisely the right people to certify pilots and aircraft. Their survival as a profession depends on it. Plus they know their stuff—probably better than FAA officials, who are responsible for overseeing many different types of operations.

Even though International Council of Air Shows president John Cudahy emphasized that airshows hadn’t had a spectator fatality in more than 50 years, the NTSB was searching for a change to recommend. Increased setbacks? More regulations? More thorough inspections of aircraft modifications? Increased standards for pilots? Air boss George Cline may have given them one answer. As an air boss, Cline has overseen safety standards and operations at airshows for 20 years, but he is not certified—because there is no certification program for an air boss. Create the standards for certification, Cline suggested. Not a bad idea, but I have a feeling it won’t stop there.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.