In the spotlight: NTSB holds hearing on air races and airshows

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Airshows and air races are safe in the United States, but can be made even safer. That was the conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board after a nearly day-long meeting Jan. 10, which was scheduled following the accident at the Reno Air Races last September that killed 11, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injured 70 others.

Among the many experts who testified at the hearing was Michael Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association, who noted that Reno, started in 1908, is the longest running air race in the world. He detailed in minute detail the steps organizers take throughout the year to assure safety, ranging from qualifying pilots through close work with the FAA and local fire and police departments, to debriefings after each event. Between 10 and 12 years ago, Houghton added, new safety measures were put into place, requiring, among other things, a four-day ground school for participants and race course simulations.

Rod Hightower, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, told the NTSB board members the organization’s annual AirVenture has suffered only six fatalities in the past 60 years. When asked if people and aircraft flying to AirVenture undergo any inspections or testing, Hightower said all pilots must follow FAA regulations and that special waivers and regulations are put into place for the event. Information about these are distributed in many ways to pilots flying to Oshkosh, he added.

The manner in which safety is approached at the Seafair Air Show, held each August in Seattle, was explained by Frank Sebastian, airshow coordinator. While participating aircraft are based at King County International Airport/Boeing Field, the airshow is held over Lake Washington. Sebastian explained that safety zones are provided over the water, while a park on the west side of the flight area is closed during performances.

He and all other spokesmen representing racing and airshows carefully detailed pilot qualifications and briefings.

Experts ranged from those from the Miramar Air Show near San Diego who explained a military approach to airshows, while officials from the Commemorative Air Force and the Red Bull Air Races explained procedures for airshows that are not held at the same place every time. In 50 years of flying at 57 different locations, CAF shows have had only six accidents, while Red Bull has conducted 50 races at 27 locations throughout the world with no accidents.

Sean Tucker, a leading airshow pilot who has flown in more than 500 airshows, told the board members how much pilots must practice and what other safety measures are taken. Before beginning the airshow season, he said, it takes 90 flights to practice and prepare. He has two full-time mechanics working on his aircraft and they check it before each flight, as well as basically perform a 100-hour inspection after only a few flights. As one means of assuring even added safety, he suggested airshow performers should serve an apprentice period before actually going solo in performances.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, NTSB chair, noted much had been learned during the session. “All of us appreciate the time and effort [the panel members] took to provide us with informative and thought-provoking presentations,” she said, adding, “much is being done well in this part of the aviation community, and it’s a valuable part of the aviation community that does so much to showcase the skills and the artistry of flight, as well as to serve as aviation’s goodwill ambassador.”

While the NTSB may make recommendations from its hearings, it has no authority to mandate rules or regulations.

Charles Spence is General Aviation News’ Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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