Air Race Safety Hearings Reveal Feds’ Attitudes

In wake of Reno crash, the FAA and NTSB give strong indications of what kind of change is in store for air shows and air races.

Reno Air Race Crash
Reno Air Race Crash
** The modified P-51 that crashed during the
Reno Air Races in September.**

In response to the Reno Air Races tragedy and to a number of air show performer fatalities last year, the NTSB convened a one-day hearing on the safety of air races and air shows on Tuesday. The big news is that there's no big news.

At the hearing the NTSB heard from a number of speakers, including Mike Cudahy, from the International Council of Airshows, Mike Houghton, president of the Reno races association, air show performer Sean Tucker, and the FAA deputy director of aviation safety John McGraw, among others.

McGraw’s discussion was enlightening as much in what he didn’t say as what he did. After giving some background information on just what the FAA’s role is in air show and air race safety, McGraw discussed the role of the FAA’s Inspector in Charge (IIC) at such events, what the IIC is authorized to do (cancel performances, change schedules and review safety compliance, among many other powers) and what they are not authorized to do--they cannot “manage, control, or direct any portion” of the event. The testimony seemed to provide substantial answers to what the agency’s role was at Reno and addressed, in retrospect, critics’ complaints that the FAA had been lax on safety leading up to the Reno crash.

McGraw’s testimony strongly implied that the agency would not be overreacting to the first spectator fatalities at a U.S. airshow in decades. He did say that future guidance will discuss air race standards as distinct from those for air shows and that the agency will evaluate its assumptions about spectator placement.

In her closing remarks, NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman remarked that the NTSB’s goal, “as always, is to continue the adventure of flight while we ensure its safety.”