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Reno air race organizers hope to continue race after deadly crash

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN producer
updated 7:51 PM EST, Wed January 4, 2012
A plane crashed into spectators at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, in September.
A plane crashed into spectators at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, in September.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 11 people died in September when racing plane crashed into spectators
  • Group that runs event says it expects to get permits for this year's races
  • NTSB is investigating the cause of last year's crash, holding hearing on shows' safety

(CNN) -- Nearly four months after a P-51 Mustang veered out of control and slammed into spectators at the Reno, Nevada, air races -- killing 11 people, injuring scores of others and jeopardizing the future of the event -- race organizers Wednesday said the show will go on.

The head of the Reno Air Racing Association said the association will seek permits for the full schedule of races to take place September 12-16 and is confident that it will get them. If not, he said, organizers will stage a one-time-only memorial event to commemorate those killed and injured last year, and will bring an end to the 49-year-old tradition.

"Many of the victims, their families, air race teams and fans have told us they're coming to Reno this September no matter what," said Mike Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association, at a Reno press conference. "And we feel it's our obligation to give them something, no matter what."

Houghton said the association is doing everything possible to assure that all features of the races will continue, including the unlimited class race, which featuring planes flying at low altitudes in excess of 500 mph.

It was unclear how close spectators would be allowed and whether that would include areas in which they were killed or hurt in the September crash.

The event relies on the races to attract its 200,000 fans, who contribute an estimated $85 million to the local economy, Houghton said, and it would not be economically viable as a more traditional air show.

In an apparent effort to win government support for the races, the association created a "blue ribbon review panel" that included two well-known former government officials, former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall and former Federal Aviation Administration official Nick Sabatini. The panel will review changes that can be made to ensure the races' safety, Houghton said.

The September 15, 2011, crash came when noted pilot James Leeward's Mustang flew off course, pitching upward briefly before flying into a spectator area. Leeward and 10 spectators died, and about 60 people were injured.

The NTSB is investigating the cause of the crash and is examining video that shows a piece of trim tab, an aerodynamic surface on the tail of the plane, separating from the plane at the time the pilot lost control.

The crash also has prompted the NTSB to hold a one-day hearing on air show safety. That hearing will be held Tuesday in Washington.

Houghton said the race sponsors, vendors and pilots he has met have "universally" expressed support for continuing the races, and that fan support has been "overwhelming." Fewer then 20% of the fans asked for refunds from the races canceled after last year's crash, he said.

Houghton said the association needs permits or waivers from the FAA, the local airport authority and the city of Reno. He expressed optimism that all three entities would permit the races, but said his biggest concern is any unknown obstacle that could interfere with race plans.

The crash is expected to bring a flurry of lawsuits. In a lawsuit filed by the family of deceased spectator Craig Salerno of Friendswood, Texas, lawyers argued the crash was not a "freak accident," but was "the predictable result of a reckless drive for speed by a risk-taking pilot and crew, coupled with an insatiable drive for profit" by race organizers.

The FAA said it has revised its air race policy to require all air racing organizations to go through a standardized accreditation process to ensure all air race organizations are subjected to the same review and authorization standards.

The FAA said it has invited the Reno Air Racing Association to contact it when it is ready to begin the accreditation process. Once the FAA receives that notification, the FAA will select a team that will conduct a top-to-bottom review of the organization's operations, the agency said.

In the 49 years of racing at Reno, 19 pilots have died in crashes. Last year's crash is believed to be the first to kill spectators.

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