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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Air Show Races under Scrutiny

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The National Championship Air Races began more than four decades ago and have been a major tourist draw for the Reno area. But, September 16 marked the worst air race accident in the U.S. in more than a half a century when a P-51 Mustang fighter called the Galloping Ghost crashed into the seating area in front of a grandstand at Reno-Stead Airport. Eleven people died, including the pilot; 70 were injured. The accident is still under investigation, but Michael Barr, an expert on aviation safety and former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who used to help plan air shows, said the accident was most likely attributed to a mechanical problem.

Every year, more than 10 million people attend these air shows which are built around pilots engaging in extreme risk-taking stunts and maneuvers. While the shows are popular, there are definitely safety concerns. Besides investigating the deadly Sept. 16 accident, the NTSB is investigating another crash at the Reno Air Race one the day before and one during the June practice race when pilots were able to warm up for the main race. It also is investigating five other air race/show accidents that occurred in 2011. Are race officials foregoing their responsibility for public safety in lieu of profits?

Critics contend that the Reno Air Races are more dangerous than the typical air show where aerobatic stunts are performed. Air show regulations require planes to follow a course parallel to the grandstands so that the direction and energy of the planes is never pointed directly at the crowd, but in air races, the planes will briefly turn into the direction of spectators for a final “thrill” just before going into the home stretch. While experienced pilots may understand the risk of piloting an aging airplane at high speeds, spectators are forced to rely upon the organizers of the event and the FAA to ensure adequate safety measures are in place. What level of risk is acceptable for both the public and the pilots? What safety improvements can be made to reduce that risk while still permitting daredevil performances? The NTSB hopes to receive answers to these questions and more during a hearing scheduled today.

Mike Danko, a pilot and lawyer who has handled numerous aviation cases, including air show crashes, said the hearing will provide the NTSB with a unique opportunity to unveil the weaknesses in the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations. Danko said the hearing will “allow the board to ask questions about air show and air race operations, such as whether an ‘air boss’ who oversees the aircraft at an air show, has the proper training for the job.”

Although permits are still needed from the City of Reno, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, and the FAA, the Reno Air Racing Association plans to hold the annual September event in 2012. Racing officials said if permits are not granted, they will stage a one-time-only memorial event to commemorate those killed and injured last year bringing an end to a 49-year-old tradition. Assuming all permits are granted, will new safety measures be in place in time?

Mark Bello has thirty-five years experience as a trial lawyer and thirteen years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by a plaintiff involved in pending, personal injury, litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Mississippi, Connecticut, Texas, and Tennessee Associations for Justice, and Consumers Attorneys of California, member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.