Reno, Nevada Crash: Are Air Races Safe?

VIDEO: World War II plane flown by Hollywood stunt man crashes right into the crowd. PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Fatal Crash at Reno Air Race

Organizers of the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., have long touted the speed and drama inherent in their annual event, the last of its kind in the country.

Their web site boasts of a "motorsports event like no other" -- aircraft reaching speeds of 500 miles per hour, screaming around an oval course, sometimes traveling no more than 50 feet off the ground.

"Each race is just one thrilling episode of a weeklong pylon-to-pylon drama filled with excitement at every turn and endings you will never see coming," the Web site boasts.

But those words have taken on a haunting new meaning following Friday's disaster, when a World War II-era fighter plane crashed near spectators, killing at least nine people, including the 74-year-old pilot, and injuring dozens of others.

Although the air races took place under Federal Aviation Administration rules, the tragedy is raising questions whether these "car races in the sky" should be banned as just too dangerous for pilots and spectators alike.

Doug Bodine, a pilot who has raced at Reno for the last six years, told The Associated Press the FAA and Reno officials "need to consider ending the air races as one of the options."

That view was echoed on the website of the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"This foolhardy local event needs to go away," one commenter on the site wrote. Asking "what in the world" was an elderly man "doing racing in this thing," the commenter added, "Commercial pilots have to be retired at 62. There is probably a very good reason for that policy."

"Maybe it's time to switch to a bowling tournament instead," another reader added.

Others are defending the races.

"There is zero evidence that the age of the pilot was any factor in the accident at all. Jumping to uninformed conclusions before the smoke even clears is typical of people that have no meaningful experience with aviation. It is not possible to make life 'safe.' Only the gutless try to do so. Machines moving at high speed are dangerous. Stay away if you haven't the courage to fly them, or watch them be flown," said one poster on the Gazette-Journal's site.

Another added, "Terribly tragic accident at such a fun event. Risks in life every day, but we learn and go on. Right now we are very sad."

After flying into Reno, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said he wants to keep the races, but only if they can be made more safe.

"I do not want to see this event here in northern Nevada come to an end. I think it has history, I think people have enjoyed it over the years," he said. "But how do you get over, how do you get over a tragic event like this? And that's what's going to be decided in the next six months."

Before Friday, 19 pilots had died in accidents at the Reno air races but no spectators had been killed or seriously injured since the annual event began in 1964.

Race organizers compare the risks of the event to those at drag racing, or Indy or NASCAR races, where there have also been crashes in which fans were injured or killed.

"When you fly an airplane, there are certain risks just taking off and landing," Michael Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Races, said today. "When you add the other dimension of racing -- it's a fast sport. It's not unlike Indianapolis or NASCAR.

"Every racing pilot understands the risks. They are perhaps the best pilots in the world," he said.

He stressed the safety issue on Tuesday, three days before the tragedy, when he announced that six jets scheduled to take part in this year's races would not be flying because of safety concerns involving engine modifications to make them go faster.

"Safety is our foremost priority here at the National Championship Air Races. The Reno Air Racing Association along with Racing Jets Inc. always work with the FAA to create the safest environment possible for our pilots, volunteers and fans," he said then.

Organizers of the Reno races also softened two of the curves racers must negotiate after crashes in 1998 and 1999. Still, after crashes in 2007 and 2008, local school officials debated whether they should allow student field trips to the event.

The Reno air races typically draw 200,000 spectators a year, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the economy of northern Nevada.

The speed and excitement of the races are not the only appeal; a family of four can watch the Reno races for just $40 -- less than the cost of one box seat at many Major League ballparks.

There is also a new focus today on the safety of a different kind of aerial spectacle -- air shows -- after a 1950s-era plane crashed and burned in Martinsburg, W.Va., this afternoon, killing the pilot.

That accident occurred during an acrobatic stunt at the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge air show when the fixed-wing, T-28 aircraft built in 1958 rolled and crashed into a runway at the Martinsburg airfield. The West Virginia Air National Guard said that no spectators were injured and that the crash site was far away from anyone at the show

The pilot was the fourth participant at a U.S. air show to die in a crash this year, said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows.

There are as many as 350 air shows in North America each year, drawing 12 million people, compared to the one air race each year, the annual event in Reno.

But air shows and air races differ in many other ways as well -- a distinction the International Council of Air Shows was quick to point out today.

While air races feature pilots competing on an oval track, the pilots in air shows conduct stunts and maneuvers on courses running parallel to the viewing area -- offering spectators more protection, Cudahy said.

In addition, no spectator has been killed or seriously injured at a U.S. air show in 60 years, he said.

"We are confident that when the differences (between air races and air shows) are understood, the safety record of the air show industry will speak for itself," he said.