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Editorial from the Reno-Gazette-Journal

Reno, NV
January 5th, 2012


President Mike Houghton and the board of the Reno Air Racing Association deserve praise for their determination to keep the planes flying at the National Championship Air Races.

It remains to be seen whether that's possible. As Houghton acknowledged Wednesday, there are challenges to overcome and much work to be done.

The event held every September is one of the most important on the Reno-Sparks calendar. It also is one of the most historic -- the last races held on an oval circuit, similar to the one used for automobile races, and the only one featuring multiple classes of aircraft, including the popular Unlimited Class, involving highly modified World War II-era planes.

As welcome as a return to racing at Reno Stead Airport would be, it's important to recognize that whether the nonprofit organization is able to bring the racing back or opts instead for something different, hard decisions will have to be made to ensure the safety of those attending.

On Wednesday, Houghton announced that, one way or another, there will be an event in September. The association is so confident that it put tickets on sale.

It will come one year after 11 people died at the 2011 races, 10 of them spectators, when the Unlimited Class aircraft of pilot Jimmy Leeward plowed into the airport tarmac and sprayed debris into the crowd. More than 70 were injured.

Wednesday's announcement had the support of pilots, spectators and families of the victims.

Pilots had been killed at the event before -- a total of 20, including Leeward -- but never before had spectators been caught up in a crash. The pilots have always understood the danger and accepted the risk. Spectators, despite a warning included on tickets, likely assumed that every possibility was considered and their risk minimized.

Pilots and spectators have the right to decide how much risk they are willing to accept. But no one should forget that 11 people died at the event in 2011, people who depended on RARA to protect them from the dangers.

That's why RARA is wise to enlist the help of a panel of outside experts. Houghton said that the group will include the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jim Hall. That will help give the public confidence that RARA is taking its responsibility to ensure the safety of both pilots and spectators seriously.

But the hurdles to taking to the air again are many. The public must be reassured, but so must the Federal Aviation Administration, which has jurisdiction over the races, and the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, which owns Reno Stead Airport. Both have to give the go-ahead to the races.

Meanwhile, the NTSB report on the accident has yet to be completed, and lawsuits could stand in the way of another event.

Houghton's optimism that the challenges can be met is commendable. However, the issues are bigger than RARA or the community's desire to continue the races.

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