Monday, September 3, 2012

Reno Air Racing Prep - 2012

Keeping up with the news surrounding the Reno Air Races this year has been exhausting. Racers and fans alike have so many questions, i.e., are we racing, what changes will we see, who will be there, who won’t, will the fans notice any changes? These are all good questions. I hope that I have, through this column, helped everyone understand what the process has been following the horrific event of September 16, 2011. I have tried to listen to the questions the fans have been asking and answer them here.

NTSB Review Board

NTSB Review Board provided their findings in a Press Conference on August 27th. Many of their recommendations have been discussed in this column earlier in the year. The final determination of cause was reviewed during this meeting. I have been following their investigation closely and am incredibly impressed with the depth of information they obtained, the amount of analysis which was done and their efforts. Generally investigations such as this one could take over two years to complete. Because they wanted to provide the information in time for the 2012 Reno Air Races, they pushed to get final recommendations and analysis done in time.

If you didn’t watch the Press Conference live or via video from their website, you missed some riveting information. I won’t go into the details, but the NTSB placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Jimmy Leeward as race pilot and aircraft owner.

My problem is; the checks and balances have always been in place. The FAA requires annual condition inspections, which are required for all aircraft – even experimental, exhibition and racers. RARA requires these documents be submitted each year with our racing packets. The class technical inspections are only required to make sure the aircraft adhere to the class requirements – they aren’t supposed to replace this annual condition inspection. If changes are made to an aircraft, the FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) must be notified in writing. A specific testing program is outlined to verify these changes are safe, generally a specific amount of time must be flown in the configuration and a final sign off by the pilot is required stating the changes were tested in accordance with the program and everything went well.  

To campaign a Race Team may look easy. It’s not. From the fastest Jet or Unlimiteds to the slowest IF1 or Biplane – special attention is taken to make sure the aircraft and the pilot are ready for the task at hand. For those of us who have been racing for years, we have seen our share of friends hurt or killed – so we know the level of risk involved. Our maintainers are keenly aware of their place in the event. We rely on each other to do the right thing and to present on race day the best possible aircraft we can. I truly believe this is everyone’s focus. No one tries to cut corners, to my knowledge.

With all of these checks in place, how could things get so far gone? To hear the NTSB describe the state of the Galloping Ghost was chilling. It clearly wasn’t ready to “beat Strega” as Jimmy stated a thousand times. I wish he was more cautious and less aggressive. But, he was a racer. And he was my friend, which makes it so much harder to hear those words spoken by the NTSB.

How do things look for 2012

While the number of competitors is down, we can still expect some terrific racing. Strega will be back for probably her final year. She’s still the one to beat and Steven Hinton is still the Wunderkind. Just in his mid-20s and already one of the most brilliant racers of our time.

Rare Bear will be flown by Stewart Dawson. He has been getting seat time and they are tweaking things to give her the best possibly chance in September.

Furias will be there in her new paint. She looks GREAT – thanks to Bucky Dawson’s paint scheme and amazing work (as usual) from the Sanders. Matt Jackson will be in the pilot – and he’s ready.

232 aka September Fury will be flown by Hoot Gibson. The aircraft has been going through some serious review to make sure she is ready. The rumor is the 232 crew wants to beat her big sister, Rare Bear. It’s a good natured competition – which is just what we need right now.

Dreadnaught aka The Buick is ready to jump into the lead if any of the front runners sneeze. They are always poised for great things.

Precious Metal has been reworking many things this year. Their team has been burning the candle on both ends and are working hard to toe the line the FAA has put down regarding aircraft changes and engineering reports. My understanding is the PM Team has completed all their paperwork and is finalizing the testing program and should be on the field with bells on for the first Pilot Brief of 2012. Thom Richard and crew are the only team in the Unlimited Division making major changes this year which now require these engineering reports.  It’s all new procedures for us and we’re just doing our best to figure things out.

That should be our top six in the Unlimited Gold. Miss America and Sawbones should round out the group. We will all miss Voodoo and Czech Mate, but the show must go on. At this time, we have just 21 Unlimited Racers scheduled to attend.

Other Notables

I wanted to make a special comment here stating that Lee Behel is bringing back the beautiful GP-5. His tenacity knows no bounds. I have always been a big fan, but his efforts with this aircraft are herculean. I wish him the best of luck.

I also wanted to mention that Mike Dacey, who had an engine failure and subsequent hard landing the day before the Galloping Ghost Incident is recovering. He will not be racing this year, but insists that he will be back. His determination is inspiring and I wish him the best as he rebuilds.

Final thoughts

To all the racers and crew who have decided to come back this year, I applaud you. We were not sure we were racing until the last minute and we had to have faith to put our time and energy into the difficult preparations to be there in September, as we have been for so many Septembers before.

To the Rookies who showed up at PRS and have decided to join our family, you are to be applauded as well. You came forward to try your hand at this incredible sport, without knowing what would happen. You have great faith, or you’re crazy -- but either way, I thank you!

To all the fans and volunteers who have decided to join us, we appreciate you. Without you, it would be just a bunch of really cool planes and friends looking for a race.

To the NTSB, I am grateful that you took your task so seriously. Also a big thank you to the civilians who assisted them, including Bill Kerchenfaut and Mike Luvara – to the aircraft owners who gave them access to their aircraft including Bob Button – to the Blue Ribbon Committee who came back to help the NTSB understand what we do including Jon Sharp and  Steve Hinton.

To each Race Class Leadership, you don’t get the credit you deserve, especially this year. Your dedication has been unwavering.

To RARA, thank you for not giving up hope and for continuing to pave the way for us to race again.

This entire process has just reminded me of how wonderful this community is and how close we were to losing the one event that brings us together.  Let’s all hope for a clean, safe and fun 2012 Reno Air Races.

Marilyn Dash
Ruby Red Racing