On Friday, a vintage World War II–era P-51 Mustang fighter plane piloted by veteran stunt flyer Jimmy Leeward crashed into the VIP stands at the National Championship Air Races outside Reno, Nev., killing Leeward and at least eight others, and injuring dozens more. (Watch an expletive-laced video of the crash below.) The next day, a post-war T-28 Warbird crashed at an air show in Martinsburg, W.Va., killing the pilot, Jack "Flash" Mangan. What do the crashes tell us about the safety and future of air competitions?
1. These races will never be completely safe
The Reno air races are different than air shows: Thousands of people come every year to watch planes race "wingtip-to-wingtip, following an oval path around a course of pylons, sometimes buzzing the ground as close as 50 feet, at speeds in excess of 500 mph," says Mike Spinelli at Jalopnik. Leeward was the 20th pilot to die in the Reno air races' 47-year history, although these were the first audience fatalities. "Other than moving the race course a mile or so from the grandstands, I don't see how you can make the sport safer," says Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians. And fans won't travel from around the country for a lousy view.
2. But the risks can be tamed
Race officials still have to "explain why, with all the safety prerequisites at air shows and races, the Reno spectator section was placed below the circuit where airplanes perform at low altitude and at speeds in the 350-400 mile per hour range," says Christine Negroni at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The death of spectators does change the standard "pilots knew the risk" calculus, says the Reno Gazette-Journal in an editorial. It's too soon to shutter the race, but until we decide its fate, "schools should suspend all field trips to the air races," the screening of pilots and planes must be re-examined, and "no one should be criticized for wondering if the pilot's age, 74, contributed to the crash."
3. Actually, the dangers aren't as great as they seem
"If there's anything immediately useful to come from this trauma," says Paul Bertorelli at AVweb Insider, "it might be the framing of public assumption of risk at things like air shows." Compared with auto racing — 29 spectators were killed at NASCAR and other auto races over a 12-year period starting in the 1990s — the risk of death or injury at a U.S. air show or race is "vanishingly small." Anyone who thinks there is no risk "should probably stay home," but we hope Reno decides to let us "airplane crazies" continue to come for its unique air race. Given that the races bring $80 million a year to the local economy, Reno officials do, too, says the Reno Gazette-Journal.
4. Still, modifying old planes is inherently risky
Leeward's 65-year-old P-51 Mustang had undergone a massive overhaul in the year before the race, with five feet lopped off each wing, its engines souped up, and the ailerons — the back edge of the main wings, used to control balance — halved to 32 inches. "These guys have always been pushing the edge of the envelope in terms of driving the airplanes hard, driving engines hard," says MIT aeronautics professor John Hansman. Indeed, in an interview earlier this year, Leeward said the new engines would handle so much stress they're "essentially 12-cylinder hand grenades."