Reno crash raises questions about the future of air races
The Reno Air Races turned disastrous Friday when a P-51 Mustang aircraft crashed into the spectator area. The accident raises questions about the way such races are conducted.
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Initial reports indicated that the pilot had pulled up and called “mayday” before plummeting straight down at high speed into the box seats at the end of the spectator area.Skip to next paragraph
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At this writing, three people (including the pilot) have died as a result of the crash and 56 were taken to local hospitals, many of them critically injured.
But given the total destruction of the aircraft, former NTSB investigator Greg Feith told MSNBC, the exact cause of the accident – perhaps a mechanical failure or a medical situation experienced by the pilot – may never be known.
Some have raised questions about Leeward’s age, initially reported as 80 but then corrected to 74. Those who knew him well reject the suggestion that he was too old to participate in such a stressful and potentially dangerous sport requiring physical strength, extraordinary reflexes, and the ability to react instantly to emergency situations including engine failure at low level.
Leeward's aviation medical records were up-to-date, and he was "a very qualified, very experienced pilot," said Reno Air Races President and CEO Mike Houghton.
Some witnesses to the crash suggested that Leeward may have maneuvered his aircraft away from the grandstands where the casualties could have been higher.
Four pilots have been killed in recent years. Over the years, there have been 19 deaths due to crashes and collisions at Reno, but none until this week had involved spectators.
Two pilots died at the event in 1994, and organizers softened two of the curves pilots negotiate after two more pilots crashed into nearby neighborhoods in 1998 and 1999, according to an Associated Press report. In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting local school officials to consider barring student field trips to the event.
Air shows not involving races also have a long record of accidents involving pilots and spectators. There have been eight so far this year, five involving fatalities. The worst was in 2002 when a Ukrainian Air Force fighter crashed during an air show near Lviv, Ukraine, killing 77 people and injuring 543.