In the wake of the horrifying crash at the National Championship Air Races at Reno Stead Field on Friday evening, in which nine people lost their lives and many more were critically or seriously injured, a deep sense of grief has descended upon the aviation community.
We all share the sense of loss and sorrow over the death of legendary air racer Jimmy Leeward and the spectators who were killed in the crash, videos of which have been shown nonstop for the past week on major news networks the world around.
Air racing is an inherently risky sport to its participants. There is a long list of racers, aerobatics competitors and air show performers who have been killed doing what they do. The margins are thin and the stakes are everything.
For fans, on the other hand, air shows and air races are, statistically speaking, remarkably safe events. The deaths at Reno were the first spectator fatalities in the 47-year history of the Reno races. The Cleveland National Air Races, which ran from 1929 through the late 1940s, were ended when in 1949 racer Bill Odom lost control of his P-51 and crashed into a house, killing himself and two people in the house.
Considering the many millions of people who have attended those races over the years, statistically speaking, the risk is low. The International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) puts the number of events in the United States annually at 350 and the number of spectators at 2 million. This is probably a conservative estimate, as many smaller air shows aren't included and the spectator tallies don't take into account the large number of spectators who watch from rooftops and roadsides without having been officially counted.
The number of spectator fatalities at U.S. air shows is unknown, but it is very low. Reno organizers claim to never have had a spectator fatality before. And ICAS says that it has been "decades" since there was last a spectator fatality.
Auto racing, statistically speaking, is far riskier for fans, but even then, the sport's safety record is remarkably good. The worst sporting disaster in professional racing sports history, in fact, was an auto racing crash, in which 80 people died back in 1955 during a 24-hour road race in France. Several non-racing sports have suffered greater loss of life. The greatest loss of life at an air show was at Ramstein, Germany, in 1988 when three airplanes from the Italian Air Force demonstration team collided in midair and crashed into the crowd, killing 70 and injuring more than 300 people.
Going to a large event has built in risks. Even bucolic baseball is not immune. Over the last 150 years of organized baseball, nearly a thousand people--participants and spectators--have died at the ballpark, including a couple of spectators who were hit by foul balls. Just the year, a couple of fans fell to their deaths at Major League ballparks.
In the first few days following the Leeward Reno crash, there have been calls to end air racing. It is understandable given the shock generated by this tragedy. But the actual risks to spectators, not just at Reno but at air events around the world, are small. While that fact will in no way alleviate the pain of those who lost a loved one in Reno last week, it is nevertheless the truth.
The truth, too, is that the FAA already heavily safeguards races like Reno. Airplanes are painstakingly inspected, racers thoroughly vetted, and the course meticulously reviewed. Safety is already job one at Reno, a fact that has been little reported in the mainstream press.
So, how should we react to the crash?
For one, we should, despite their culture of safety, take a sober look at how the races are run and figure out if there is any way we can further reduce risk. Maybe rules could be introduced to limit maneuvering on the turn when racers are approaching the crowd. There are numerous possibilities.
We need to bear in mind, however, that while we can reduce the risks, it's not possible to eliminate it, any more than we can at any major racing event. Though deaths at races are sporadic and often result from freak accidents, spectator deaths will continue to occur at stock car, motorcycle and boat and snow machine races. So long as we accommodate spectators, there will be some risk.
As a pilot and fan of aviation history, Reno holds a special place in my heart, and I know that this fact biases me. At the same time, I'm free of the bias that colors the judgment of many non-pilots, that is, the irrational belief that airplanes are hazards beyond all proportion to the numbers of injuries they cause to non-pilots. When looking at the future of air sports, we need to bear this in mind. If we reach our decision on the future of the sport based on the actual safety of the sport and not based on our emotional reaction to an admittedly horrifying accident, then the only reasonable response is to find ways to make the event safer for participants and fans alike while keeping the checkered flags flying.