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Last Saturday morning, as my wife Janet and I puttered around the kitchen preparing breakfast, she asked out of the blue, "What do you think can be done about air show safety?"

I pondered for a moment. There have been several bad air show crashes this year that have killed pilots. "Maybe a careful review of each routine to make sure the pilot always has enough altitude or airspeed to dead-stick it down if the power fails," I suggested. "That was Bob Hoover's rule. Still, air show flying is always going to be risky. Fortunately, there hasn't been a spectator fatality at an air show in the U.S. in decades."

She shook her head. "Yesterday," she said. "A P-51 crashed into the crowd at the Reno Air Races. Really bad."

I hadn't heard. As I sat in front of my computer reading the sketchy details of the crash that were known at the time, I felt numb. While my emotions shut down, the analytical part of my brain couldn't help but notice the usual misinformed if well-intentioned reporting in the press.

For one thing, many of the stories used the terms "air show" and "air race" interchangeably. It's a common misunderstanding. Even Janet, who's very knowledgable about aviation, confused the two. As Mac McClellan pointed out this week in an article on the EAA website, air show performances are strictly regulated to prevent airplanes from ever flying toward the crowd. In air racing, however, to complete the circuit of the course, the airplanes must fly towards the crowd at some point. Friday's events made horrifically clear what can happen when they do.

Frankly, I'm angry. I'm angry about the senseless loss of life. I'm angry about those left with severe and in many cases permanent injuries. And while it pales in comparison to these visceral horrors, dammit, I'm angry about the black eye that the overwhelming majority of conscientious pilots and aviation as a whole suffer as a result of this needless crash.

While I don't personally feel the "need for speed" in an airplane, I understand and respect those who do. I believe everyone should be encouraged to do what they're passionate about, and there's no question that pylon racing challenges pilots to hone their skills in ways that nothing else can. Air racers are among the best pilots anywhere, and I admire and aspire to their skill level. If pilots want to risk their own lives in pursuit of this passion, I won't say a word against them. That's their choice.

But all aviators, regardless of aircraft or mission, must always remember that we are pilots in command of fast-moving projectiles. As such we are bound if nothing else by FAR 91.13, which states, "No person may operate an aircraft… in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." This is more than a regulation. It's our moral obligation whenever we make the choice to take an aircraft into the air.

Meanwhile the crash investigation goes on. The NTSB and the FAA will sift through every fragment, interview everyone involved in minute detail, and try to determine what went so horribly wrong on Friday. As angry as I am, I have no interest whatsoever in fixing blame. It would be a bitter and useless exercise. But we do need to understand how this happened, and whatever the answer turns out to be, one thing is clear to me.

This must not happen again.

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October 13, 2011

Reya Kempley @ 5:23 pm #

Great post, I completely agree. It was a terrible, senseless tragedy, but the typical knee-jerk reaction that would stop the Races altogether is not the answer. Think of all the people – including kids, future pilots! – who have been inspired by the Reno Air Races and other air shows over the years. We can't eliminate risk from our lives and keep everyone safe all of the time. We can and absolutely should, however, take every precaution possible to prevent this from ever happening again. Long live aviation and air shows, and aviation safety!

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