RENO — It’s like an Indianapolis 500 in the sky.
Thrill-seeking pilots zoom by at speeds up to 500 mph as spectators "ooh" and "aah" at the jets, vintage planes and high-performance aircraft whizzing past, their wingtips nearly touching. Even the noise is awe-inspiring — the deafening roar of airplanes sometimes just a few hundred feet from spectators.
But the consequences can be deadly. The air race in Reno, where a vintage plane plummeted from the sky Friday and killed at least nine people, has drawn scorn over the years as critics assailed the event as a recipe for disaster. The crash has led to calls that officials consider ending the event, the only one of its kind in the United States.
"I think an accident of this nature, it certainly threatens the future of the air races," said Doug Bodine, a pilot who has raced at Reno for six years. "Both the FAA and (Reno race) will suffer extensive and ongoing scrutiny, and I think they need to consider ending the air races as one of the options."
The National Championship Air Races turned deadly Friday when veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward lost control of his World War II-era plane and crashed into the crowd. It was the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno.
Twenty pilots have died in that time, race officials said. Three pilots died while racing in the 2007 competition and another was killed during a practice race the next year.
Past deaths have led to on-again, off-again calls for better safety at the races, but it kept growing into a major event in Reno.
Local officials say the races generate tens of millions of dollars for the local economy during the five-day event held every September, and the stakes are high for the pilots. About $1 million in prize money is up for grabs, and a local sports book even took wagers this year on the event.
The event is already subject to stringent regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration, including an examination of pilot qualifications, their airplanes and records and a requirement that airmen complete rigorous training before being allowed to compete, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. He said the FAA also requires organizers to come up with a thorough race plan and demonstrate to the agency when they have done as much as they can to ensure the crowd’s safety.
But all the regulations in the world won’t prevent deaths in the event that a competitor plunges into spectators.
Organizers acknowledge that there’s an inherent risk, especially for pilots during their white-knuckle rides filled with sharp turns and large G-forces on the oval course. But they say it’s no different than a drag race or Indy or NASCAR event where deaths occur and shrapnel flies into crowds and injures fans.
They often cite statistics showing how places like Daytona International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway have had more deaths than the Reno races, and there are many other examples where extreme racing sports result in death. For example, eight spectators were killed, including Danica Frantzich, 20, of Las Vegas, and at least a dozen injured last summer in the Mojave Desert in Southern California when a modified pickup taking part in the "California 200" off-road race slammed into a crowd.
"When you fly an airplane, there are certain risks just taking off and landing," said Michael Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Races. "When you add the other dimension of racing — it’s a fast sport. It’s not unlike Indianapolis or NASCAR."
Asked whether the Reno Air Racing Association board will consider permanently ending the event, Houghton replied, "Just as everything we do, we look at it from A to Z. … We will talk with the race classes and the pilots and we’ll evaluate what we do."
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who has raced stock and modified cars for years, said he is a longtime fan of the air races and he hopes they can continue but only if they can assure the safety of spectators.
"If we can’t protect spectators, I’d take a hard look at the future of the sport," he said.