Despite suffering severe injuries in the worst air race accident in the U.S. in more than a half a century, some victims have told their lawyer they would like to attend future races.
“I just look at them, shake my head and say, ‘You are absolutely nuts,’” said Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents 16 injured victims and families of people killed at an air race in Reno, Nev., in September.
Eleven people died and about 70 more were badly injured after a souped-up World War II-era warbird crashed in front of VIP boxes, sending shrapnel into the crowd.
That some victims would still support such events and return to them underscores the powerful fascination of air shows and races, which are built around pilots and performers engaged in extreme risk-taking.
More than 10 million people attend U.S. air shows every year. But what level of risk is acceptable for both the public and the pilots? And can safety improvements be made to reduce that risk while still permitting daredevil performances?
The National Transportation Safety Board is holding a hearing Tuesday to help answer those questions. The hearing is separate from the board’s investigation of the Reno accident. Officials for the Reno Air Racing Association, which sponsors the races, are scheduled to testify.
Since 1986, there have been 152 air show and air race accidents in the U.S., including 75 fatal ones, according to the board. But, except for the Reno race, none involved spectator deaths.
“When it comes to spectator fatalities, their record is very good in the United States,” said the board’s head, Deborah Hersman. “But any fatalities lead us to question how we can improve.”
Industry officials draw a sharp distinction between the Reno air races and the other nearly 350 air shows held around the country each year.
The Reno races are the only ones of their type held anywhere in the world. A group of planes flies wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.