NTSB Updates Reno Air Race Investigation, Offers New Safety Recommendations

Courtesy of NTSB

In the midst of an investigation into the deadly September 16, 2011 plane crash at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an update on their findings thus far. The agency has also offered several safety recommendations for air racing to minimize risk for pilots and spectators if a similar crash were to occur again. Some aviation experts wondered if air racing would simply be shut down after the crash, which was the worst accident in air race history. Ten spectators and the pilot were killed when a highly modified Galloping Ghost airplane crashed into spectators during a race. More than 60 others were injured in the fatal plane crash.

The NTSB investigation update issued on April 10. 2012, revealed that pilot Jimmy Leeward had never flown his highly modified plane in the race course at the speed he was traveling shortly before the crash. Though the investigation is still ongoing, initial findings place the Galloping Ghost stunt plane at speeds of over 530 miles per hour when it experienced an "upset" before crashing near the spectator grandstands. The "upset," along with maneuvers that pushed the plane into dangerous g-force levels, may have caused pilot Leeward to lose consciousness. The NTSB has therefore recommended “providing high g training to pilots, including techniques to mitigate the potential effects of high g exposure, as part of preparations before the Reno National Championship Races (NCAR) and during daily briefs at the NCAR.” 

Race planes are modified in many ways in the months, weeks and even days leading into a big race in order to increase speed, a practice that has been highlighted during this investigation. Though these modifications and changes to the aircraft are noted in logbooks and submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for approval, the NTSB says it is unlikely that planes are being tested at the same speeds and under the same circumstances as the air races themselves.

The NTSB also noted that there is little to no evaluation of the engineering on the modifications performed on race planes. It is for these reasons that the NTSB report recommended that planes in the National Champion Air Races be put through more rigorous evaluations. Additionally, the NTSB recommended changes to the oval flight pattern used during races to minimize aerial maneuvers in close proximity to spectators. Due to the high level of g-force maneuvers that occur during an air race, the NTSB also suggested that pilots be put through g-tolerance training, which is commonplace amongst military pilots or air show stunt pilots. Finally, the NTSB made the recommendation for air race pilots to wear "g-suits" to ensure that enough blood is in the brain during high g-force maneuvers. These suits, also used by fighter pilots, squeeze the legs and torso to prevent pilots from passing out.