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Regulating Risk

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the horrible crash at the Reno Air Races, I wrote an angry post in which I emphasized the responsibility that we pilots have for the safety of others. Ordinarily, I prefer not to speak or write publicly when I'm angry, but this time I felt it was important to express that anger. Sometimes it's appropriate.

I received a thoughtful comment from Reya Kempley, about whose book Flight Emergency I wrote a recent post. She rightly pointed out that it's impossible to guarantee complete safety in life; there are always risks that can't be eliminated. She also cautioned against rash regulatory action in response to the disaster, pointing out the positive role air racing has played in inspiring a passion for aviation in countless people.

Reya's right on both counts. No matter what we do, we can never eliminate risk from our lives, and certainly laws and regulations sometimes go too far in trying to do so. As I pointed out in my post, airplanes are by nature fast-moving projectiles, and partly for this reason it's illegal in some parts of the world for ordinary citizens to fly them. All of us who love flying and enjoy the freedom to fly would rightly condemn such regulation as excessive!

In aviation in the US, we are engaged in an ongoing balancing act between regulation and freedom, safety and risk, and for the most part I think we strike the balance pretty well. Our freedom to fly in this country is almost unmatched anywhere else in the world. I'm a strong proponent of wise regulation, but it's hard to do and it's susceptible to abuse and unintended consequences. Any aircraft owner who's ever been hit with an onerous airworthiness directive of dubious value understands that too well.

Still, just as it's easy to overreact and over-regulate, it's also easy to glibly dismiss risks that we can and should take steps to mitigate. It's important to note that the cause of the Reno crash has not yet been determined, but if speculations about the separation of the elevator trim tab prove true, this disaster combined with the history of trim-tab problems in racing P-51s point to an obvious opportunity to strengthen the design.

More troubling, however, is the issue of airplanes flying towards the crowd, which is currently unavoidable in this kind of racing. But with some creative thinking, we should be able to eliminate or at least greatly reduce this risk. How about putting spectators in the middle of the race course? That way, the momentum of any errant airplanes would carry them away from the crowd, not toward it. It might actually make for a more exciting spectator experience, being literally in the middle of the action.

I'm just brainstorming, of course. Those much more knowledgable about air racing might quickly shoot the idea down, but my point is that we must take a hard look at how to mitigate these very real risks so that those aviators with a "need for speed" can still push themselves and their craft to the limit and spectators can still thrill to the spectacle of powerful airplanes roaring past, wingtip-to-wingtip, fifty feet off the deckā€”and most important of all, they can do so safely.

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