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Board Meeting: Airplane Crash - National Championship Air Races Reno-Stead Airport, NV, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Board Meeting: Airplane Crash - National Championship Air Races Reno-Stead Airport, NV, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Joining me are my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Chris Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the September 16, 2011, airplane crash during the National Championship Air Races at Nevada's Reno-Stead Airport. Let me recognize Member Mark Rosekind for his outstanding service on his first launch as spokesperson for our on-scene investigative activities.

Last September, the pilot of a highly modified P-51D airplane, "The Galloping Ghost," competing in the Unlimited Division Gold Heat Race, experienced an upset while turning between pylons 8 and 9. The airplane crashed into the box seating area killing the pilot and 10 spectators. More than 60 other people suffered injuries, ranging from minor to critical.

On behalf of my fellow Board members and the entire NTSB staff, we offer our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who were killed and injured. This crash was life-altering for so many people and the investigation has also touched us deeply. We hope that everyone involved continues successfully on their own path of recovery, whether from injury or loss.

While we have investigated 22 accidents associated with the Air Races over the last 30 years, this was unlike the prior investigations because it affected spectators as well as a race participant. But it also underscores the importance of learning from loss so we can make recommendations to improve safety, not just for those who race but also for the fans of the sport.

Knowing that the air races are an annual event, our investigators worked hard to develop recommendations in advance of the 2012 races, which are scheduled to begin in just over two weeks. We also wanted to be open and transparent with the public about our findings. That's why we held a hearing in January to examine issues related to air race and air show safety and why we issued ten safety recommendations in April. The recommendations addressed the pilot, the aircraft and the racing environment.

Over the last year we have engaged with the recipients of our recommendations: the Reno Air Racing Association, the National Air-racing Group Unlimited Division and the Federal Aviation Administration. The good news is that progress has been made, and today you will hear about the implementation of many of those recommendations.

This investigation and our safety recommendations are, in effect, in a class of their own since air racing is more of a sporting event than a transportation endeavor. As we saw at the recent Summer Olympics, sport involves people pushing their individual performance limits.

And that is what the pilots do at the National Championship Air Races, especially in the Unlimited Division. They push their individual performance limits as well as their airplane's performance limits to win the competition and set records. The pilots know they are taking risks; that is what they sign up for. But, air race pilots expect that the risks taken are theirs alone. This accident forced everyone to re-evaluate that expectation.

For the fans attending races and other sporting events, they are attracted to the thrill of watching competitors push their limits and take risks. Spectators attend these events expecting to be out of harm's way. But, the risk is there. Flying debris from race cars has killed spectators, as have baseballs, hockey pucks and more. While these accidents are infrequent, when they happen, the results are tragic. In response, changes are made and additional precautions are taken.

This is the point of our investigation: to identify ways to mitigate risks where possible and ultimately, to prevent a future tragedy.

The crash of The Galloping Ghost affected so many; so many lives that will never be the same. At the heart of this tragedy was the fatal intersection and transference of risk from the participant to the observers. One moment spectators were thrilled at the spectacle of speed, only to have it followed by inescapable tragedy. In Reno, the fine line between observing risk and being impacted by the consequences when something goes wrong was crossed. The pilots understood the risks they assumed; the spectators assumed their safety had been assessed and addressed.

As we found in this investigation, for many families going to Reno each year is a longstanding tradition that they share with scores of performers and competitors, hundreds of volunteers, and some 75,000 fellow spectators. Reno-Stead is where reunions take place and aviation traditions are passed to younger generations.

Yes, the Reno air races comprise a special community within aviation. Our goal, as always, is to make this community and all of transportation safer for everyone.

Dr. Mayer, will you please introduce the staff.