Planes take to sky in Reno air races

A year after a vintage World War II fighter fell out of the sky, killing 10 spectators and the pilot, the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., have resumed — with a greater emphasis on safety.

This year’s version of the races — the 49th annual edition — kicked off this week. The event usually brings out some 200,000 spectators and is worth $80 million to the Reno area, according to the group’s website. Vintage planes will be racing at speeds of 500 mph in what promoters call “The World’s Fastest Motorsport.”

It was on the afternoon of Sept. 16 when the Galloping Ghost, a modified P-51 Mustang piloted by Jimmy Leeward, flew out of control then crashed into the box seats near a grandstand. Seventy people were injured.

Dr. Anne Courtney, an emergency room specialist from Seattle who was at the races last year, helped treat the wounded after the crash. She said she would be coming back this year.

“We are going to be sitting there in our same box seats we’ve been in now for the last 20 years. It’s kind of like a big reunion. I have no apprehension whatsoever,” she said.

In the wake of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and recommended a series of changes, which have been accepted by race organizers.

The course has been moved to 1,000 feet from the grandstand instead of 850. The final turn of the course is less sharp and fuel trucks are kept away from the landing strip. Pilots have also received better training, and there will be a new inspection process for the planes to ensure needed repairs are done.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman recently commended race organizers for taking steps to make the event safer.

The race has also changed its name to “TravelNevada.com National Championship Air Races and Air Show presented by Breitling,” after the state tourism commission gave the group a one-time sponsorship to cover the increased insurance premiums.

The official opening ceremony was planned for Wednesday, the final day of qualifying heats. The racing in six classes of craft will begin today and run through Sunday.

A tribute to the first responders to last year’s crash is scheduled for today and a ceremony for the dead and wounded planned for Sunday.

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