Despite tragedy, Reno air races reopen for business

Story by Sam Stanton
Sacramento Bee
March 23, 2012
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Despite the deaths of 11 people, federal investigations and lawsuits seeking millions of dollars, organizers of the Reno air races are moving ahead with plans to hold the event again in September.

Emails announcing ticket sales for the 49th annual National Championship Air Races Sept. 12-16 at the Reno-Stead Airport went out this week, touting a "fun-filled racing experience."

The announcement also promised a "world-class memorial and tribute" for the 10 spectators who were killed, the 74 who were injured and the pilot who died when his World War II-era fighter plane slammed into two rows of box seats last year and left a hole 3 feet deep.

But, there is no guarantee that the races will go on as scheduled. Federal approval is still pending and legal challenges contend that strict new safety rules are needed before the races can be held.

"What I know at this point is that if they don’t make any modifications, they’re reckless," said Anthony Buzbee, a Houston attorney who has filed a $25 million lawsuit on behalf of the family of Craig Salerno, a Texas man killed in last year’s accident.

Buzbee, who has lined up 15 other clients who may eventually sue, contends the Reno Air Racing Association’s $100 million insurance policy is inadequate to meet the needs of victims from last September’s crash.

The catastrophe was the deadliest in air racing history and marked the first time since 1949 that anyone other than a pilot died from a Reno air racing mishap. Before the highly modified P-51 Mustang piloted by 74-year-old James Leeward nose-dived into the stands last September, 19 pilots -- but no spectators -- had died during the races.

The races, which feature decades-old warplanes that have been modified to fly faster than 500 mph, lure thousands of ardent fans; even some of those who witnessed last year’s tragedy plan to return.

"I don’t think I calmed down until January," said Ron Snow, 70, an Elk Grove man who saw the crash from the grandstands. "The thought of it now is nerve-racking. ...

"I was sitting at the east end of the grandstand and shouting out loud, ’No, this can’t be happening, it can’t be.’ "

But, Snow added, he has been planning for months to return to the Reno for the races, and was ecstatic to learn tickets were going on sale.

"The air races have been like Christmas for me since 1969," he said. "It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen."

It’s a sentiment that many others, crash victims among them, share.

"What you have is a lot of people who really like the races, who want them to continue," said San Diego attorney David Casey, who has 18 victims as clients and said he has filed a dozen lawsuits on their behalf.

"Generally speaking, most of these folks feel this was a tragedy that occurred and it should not end the races. But they should take additional safeguards."

Buzbee said he has seen the same sort of loyalty toward the races from his clients.

"A lot of my clients really like the show, are air enthusiasts who have no interest in seeing the show stopped," Buzbee said. "The majority felt that way."

Instead, the attorneys say, there should be more focus on the pilots and the aircraft they bring to the race.

The National Transportation Safety Board expects to complete its probe of last year’s crash soon, spokesman Terry Williams said Tuesday. The agency’s preliminary report noted that photographs showed a piece of Leeward’s aircraft breaking away from the plane just before it went down. Speculation has focused on modifications the pilot made to the plane, named the "Galloping Ghost," in an effort to make it faster.

"Leeward himself admitted that the changes made to the plane had not been tested, and that the effect to the plane itself (was) unknown," Buzbee’s lawsuit contends.

Citing the lawsuits, racing association president Mike Houghton said he would not discuss the accident.

So far, organizers have not announced any changes in how the races are run, he said, choosing instead to see the results of the NTSB investigation, as well as a report by a panel of experts the group selected.

But Houghton contends the air races are safe and said he’s confident the Federal Aviation Administration will grant approval for the event to go on.

Since the crash, the FAA has changed its procedures to require all air racing groups to go through a standardized process for approval.


Sam Stanton


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