Friday, May 4, 2012

State of the Races

On April 10th, the NTSB presented their preliminary recommendations during a well attended Press Conference at the Reno Tahoe Airport. Unable to attend in person, I was able to view the on-line version. I will say, the first time I really believed we were racing in September was after I heard the words of NTSB Chairperson, Deborah Hersman, state, "We are not here to put a stop to air racing, we are here to make it safer.”  With those words, I saw a bright light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. 

During the conference, several recommendations were addressed. I will review several here and give my comments.

Evaluation of Aircraft with Structural or Flight Control Modifications

Require aircraft owners, as a condition of eligibility to participate in the Reno  National Championship Air Races, to provide an engineering evaluation that includes flight demonstrations and analysis within the anticipated flight envelope for aircraft with any major modification, such as to the structure or flight controls.

What we know is when a new Unlimited Design is brought to the Races, (think Tsunami and Pond Racer) much scrutiny is lavished on the aircraft. But, because Galloping Ghost was a returning aircraft, had raced before in several configurations, was therefore considered to just be a modification and not a new design.  These modifications will now be viewed with a similar scrutiny as a new design.

But, what constitutes a major modification? The recommendation stated, “such as to the structure or flight controls”. This leaves some things to interpretation. We know that several of the Jets have had major power plant modifications – would this be a major modification under the recommendation?  It’s not specifically structure or flight control – but should be analyzed as well.

And about testing -- a specific point that was made clearly, "This pilot, in this airplane, had never flown this fast, on this course”.  While this is true, it is nearly impossible to test an aircraft within the race conditions, unless they are on the race course – with other aircraft. G-Forces, air pressure differentials, heat, winds, buffeting and the course design would all need to be replicated in a true test environment.

While I would concede that the Galloping Ghost should have been tested further. The ability to do that is not easy due to speed limits on aircraft under 10,000/18,000 feet and the inability to find true test environments.

NCAR Unlimited Class Course Design

Evaluate the design of the unlimited class course and safety areas to minimize maneuvering near and potential conflicts with spectators; if warranted by the results of the evaluation, implement changes to the race course

Over the years, modifications have been made to the race course as needed. It looks like RARA will be making additional changes to Pylons 4, 7, 8 and 9. Pylon 4 has been mentioned by several pilots as hard to see at race speed. I tend to believe Pylon 4 was going to be moved prior to the events of 2011. And, I wouldn’t be surprised if the relocation of Pylons 7, 8 and 9 may have also been on the list. My assumption is the deadline over at the Valley of Speed (Western edge of the course) will now be made larger.  This could also impact the flight path of the racers. The turn from 7, 8, 9 and home pylons has always been tricky – will it get even trickier?

I haven’t seen the old course and new course overlayed together to see how much the course will change, but I will share it with you when it’s completed and made available. Just assume there will be changes to the course.

Training and Mitigation Techniques for High G Operations

Provide high G training to pilots, including techniques to mitigate the potential effects of high G   exposure, as part of preparations before the Reno National Championship Air Races (NCAR) and during daily briefs at the NCAR.  Evaluate the feasibility of requiring pilots to wear G- suits when racing at the Reno National Championship Air Races; if the evaluation determines it is feasible, implement a requirement.

Most of the pilots who participate in NCAR each year are at least Aerobatic Trained, most are Commercial Pilots and many are Military trained. I can guarantee that we have all had conversations about G tolerances and have been exposed to high G maneuvers. You cannot get to this level of competition without this experience and knowledge.

I think it’s a great idea for us to have additional conversations about effects, exposure and preparation. I don’t think it’s feasible or practical for G-Suits to be required. We’ve done some research and a tank, systems and a G-Suit could be purchased for approximately $5k.Installation and design requirements would be additional - but, the weight is prohibitive to all classes except Unlimited and Jets.

As far as I know, the only racers who have worn G-Suits in the past have been in the Jet Class. Jets are more likely to already come with the systems necessary – which is why they were in use. I have never heard of anyone installing a system for racing.

I also want to say that a G-suit would not have changed things in the Galloping Ghost incident. Rapid onset of high G’s is rarely mitigated by these suits; they are more useful for sustained high G maneuvers.  Looking at the US Military Jet Teams, the Thunderbirds wear them and the Blue Angels do not.  The Angels do not wear the suits because of the potential for unexpected stick inputs when the suit “inflates”. If the pilot is bracing his/her arm on the top of their leg to have more firm stick control (standard) – this inflation could have an effect on the pilots’ ability to safely fly in formation close to other aircraft and close to the ground.

Fuel Truck Operations

Take the following actions to raise the level of safety for spectators and personnel near the race course: (1) relocate the fuel truck away from the ramp area and (2) in front of any area where spectators are present, install barriers more substantial than those currently in place.

This is another one that we have discussed in the past. The Fuel Trucks need to be available for Racers to obtain fuel prior to the races. But, they should probably not be between the Pit Area and the race course. Okay, I agree. However, the convenience factor needs to be considered.

What we’ve heard so far is that the Fuel Trucks will be in position between races and removed during all races. Okay, this could work and would be a happy medium between convenience and safety.


The Future

Mike Houghton said after the Press Conference, "I don't think any of these would have had an impact on the tragedy we experienced, but the association is open to changes that lead to a safer event.”  I agree with Mike and I know they are doing everything they can to keep us all safe and keep us racing.

This is what we know now. Believe me, we are constantly learning more. But, what I want to say now is, buy those tickets – because WE ARE RACING in September. And believe me; it makes me very happy to say that!

See you there!

Marilyn Dash