After much speculation about the future of the Reno Air Races, Mike Houghton - the president and CEO of the Reno Air Race Association (RARA) - announced in a news conference on Jan. 4 the 49th Annual National Reno Air Races at Reno-Stead Airfield, to be held on Sept. 12 through 16. And while this appears to be good news, race fans should not get ready to celebrate quite yet.
Still at question is whether RARA will be able to obtain the necessary permits from the City of Reno, Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority and the FAA to continue the races or what modifications would be required to obtain these permits after the tragic and immediate ending of the 2011 event when Jimmy Leeward’s highly modified P-51D Galloping Ghost crashed into the crowd.
A glimpse of the future format of the air races may be revealed after NTSB’s one-day “Air Show and Air Race Safety Hearing” scheduled for Jan. 10. RARA has also assembled a panel, named the Blue Ribbon Review Panel, tasked with developing possible modifications that would increase the safety of the races. The panel consists of John Hall, former chairman for the NTSB; Nick Sabatini, former associate administrator for aviation safety for the FAA; Steve Hinton, current pace plane pilot for the Unlimited class races and two-time Unlimited Air Race champion; and John Sharp, the man who has won more air races than anyone in the history of air racing.
The panel of four met immediately after the news conference and will develop its recommendations prior to the annual Pylon Racing Seminar, which is planned to proceed as usual in June.
In addition to the possible regulatory hurdles the races are facing, the financial losses of 2011 have presented an obstacle to the future of the races. But while RARA lost about $1.5 million in 2011, the organization claims the financial burden is not a hurdle that would prevent the races from continuing thanks to financial support from sponsors and fans.
In addition to showing gratitude for the financial assistance, RARA’s board of directors recognized those in the community that have lent their support to the organization and those affected by the accident in a long letter on its official website airrace.org. The letter served as public recognition to air race volunteers, first responders, healthcare providers, government officials, and other businesses and organizations in the community that helped in the aftermath of the tragedy.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for the Reno Air Races. While the races went on for 47 years without spectator injuries, making the Reno Air Races 100 percent safe, while obviously desirable, is probably an impossible goal. So organizers and rule makers will have to decide what the acceptable level of risk might be. But for now, enthusiasts can rest assured there will be a gathering at Reno-Stead in September, as Houghton said, “even if that means just holding a memorial air show.”