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No big change in air show safety rules likely

WASHINGTON — It's unlikely there will be significant changes to air show and air race safety rules despite an accident last year that killed 11 people, a Federal Aviation Administration official said Tuesday.

John McGraw, the FAA's deputy director of flight standards service, told a public hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board that the agency is reviewing its safety regulations in response to an accident in September at air races in Reno, Nev. A souped-up World War II warbird crashed in front of VIP boxes, sending debris into the crowd. Besides those killed, about 70 people were injured.

If the FAA becomes aware "of a risk that exceeds the boundary of what we think is acceptable, we will make those changes. But not currently," McGraw said.

The agency does expect to make some changes to clarify its existing safety regulations.

The Reno accident — the first spectator fatalities at either air races or an air show in the United States in more than half a century — as well as an uptick in pilots and other performers killed prompted the board to take a closer look at the $300 million-a-year industry's safety record.

In addition to the pilot killed in Reno, five performers were killed last year. In the two previous years there were no deaths.

"The performers understand that there are risks by flying at speeds up to 700 mph — just under the speed of sound — 100 feet above the ground and often upside down," NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said.

But spectators "are coming to be entertained, and they don't expect to be in a situation where their lives are at risk," she said.

More than 10 million people attend U.S. air shows each year. Industry officials draw a distinction between the Reno air races and the 300 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.

Air shows are primarily aerobatic performances. They run the gamut from old-fashioned barnstormers featuring antique planes to spectacles featuring U.S. military teams like the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels.

Before the Reno accident, the last U.S. spectator fatalities were at an air show in 1951 in Flagler, Colo., where 20 people were killed. That accident led to significant changes in the way air shows are staged, including a requirement that grandstands are kept a distance of 500 feet to 1,500 feet from planes depending upon the weight and speed of the aircraft.

The requirements were strengthened after 67 people were killed and another 350 injured in 1988 at a U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany. Planes are no longer allowed to fly over crowds at U.S. shows.

No big change in air show safety rules likely 01/10/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 10:03pm]
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