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NTSB focuses on deadly year in air races, shows

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 5:07 PM EST, Tue January 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tuesday's hearing by the NTSB was to see if there are common threads in accidents
  • Last year, 11 people died in an air-race accident in Nevada, 5 performers died at other shows
  • Spectators "don't expect to be in a situation where their lives are at risk" says the NTSB head
  • Air show organizers and regulators say U.S. rules are stricter than in other countries

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite a year that saw 11 deaths at the Reno Air Races in Nevada and five performers die at air shows elsewhere, federal regulators and air show organizers Tuesday vouched for the safety of the system, saying U.S. air show rules are stricter than those in other countries and do not need major revision.

U.S. rules require more distance between aerobatic aircraft and audiences than regulations in most other nations, they said. And the U.S. prohibits "aerobatic energy" from being directed towards the audience, unlike most European countries where planes can perform stunts and maneuvers while headed towards the crowd.

"We are by far the most conservative nation," said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows.

But the National Transportation Safety Board, which scheduled Tuesday's hearing in response to the Reno crash in September, indicated it will be recommending changes, particularly for races.

"Performers are assuming a certain level of risk. We understand that," said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "But when spectators come to an event, they are coming to be entertained. And they don't expect to be in a situation where their lives are at risk."

The safety board said it is currently investigating 11 air show accidents. But Tuesday's hearing was an overview -- an effort to see if there was any common thread it should address.

The safety board focused on whether the Federal Aviation Administration should strengthen its oversight, whether show pilots should meet more rigorous medical standards because of the stresses of aerobatic flight, whether audiences should be further removed from planes performing stunts and whether the FAA should certify the show "air bosses," who direct air operations during shows.

Told there was no certification for "air bosses," NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said, "That disturbs me." And several industry officials testified certification of air bosses is an area ripe for change.

Currently, the FAA reviews and certifies race and air show plans, but delegates large amounts of responsibility to not-for-profit organizations to inspect aircraft, check on the pilots' abilities and provide air traffic control services for the events. FAA inspectors attend almost all air shows, monitor operations and can halt dangerous activity.

"To our view, it's worked pretty well from this point," said John McGraw, head of the FAA's Flight Standards Services office.

McGraw said the FAA is planning changes in official guidance, because "air show" and "air race" rules appear in the same document, causing confusion for the FAA and air show workforce. The FAA also is adding an additional training course involving shows for its inspectors, he said.

Operators of the Reno Air Races and of the annual AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, depicted themselves as safety-conscious organizations that foster a safety culture by frequent briefings, strict adherence to rules and adoption of best practices and "safety management systems" -- a continuing analysis of data to find problems before they develop.

Cudahy said his organization has a "very strong" relationship with the FAA, likening the FAA to being the "senior partner" in a law firm. "I... have not seen much of a tendency to hide things from the FAA," he said.

The ICAS has both a public and confidential reporting system to encourage reporting of safety issues, and those have resulted in changes. Among those changes -- an awareness that pilots should not be distracted in the "sacred hour" before they participate in shows.

Hersman said setback requirements appear to be keeping spectators safe at air shows, noting that all five persons killed during air shows last year were performers.

But the deaths of 10 spectators at the Reno Air Races in September is focusing attention on whether setbacks are adequate for the race, the only race of its kind in the country. At the race, some planes travel at speeds of more than 500 miles per hour at elevations as low as 50 feet.

The ICAS's Cudahy said some European countries have specific rules that are tougher than U.S. rules. For instance, Germany requires aircraft to come no closer then 500 feet to the ground, a response to an accident in 1988, he said. But taken as a whole, the U.S. rules are the tightest, he said.

Eleven people were killed and scores injured in the September 15 crash of a highly modified P-51 Mustang aircraft at Reno. Last week, the Reno Air Race Association, which runs the event, said it will again conduct the race this year, provided it gets all of the necessary permits and approvals. The organization has formed a "blue ribbon review panel" that includes former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall.

Aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker of Team Oracle said he had great confidence in ICAS, and in many of the performers and crews. "They don't hoot like an owl at night, because they fly like an eagle in the morning," he said.

He said there is a community effort to improve standards.

"My community is doing an excellent job at it, but we can do a little bit better," he said.

The FAA needs to protect the number of sites at which aerobatic pilots can practice, he said.

"We can't practice low-level flying at an air show," he said.

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