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 site of jets, vintage planes and high-performance aircraft whizzing past with their wingtips nearly touching. Even the sounds are awe-inspiring amid the deafening roar of airplanes that are sometimes just few hundred feet away from spectators.
But the consequences can be deadly. The air race in Reno where a vintage plane plummeted from the sky and killed at least nine people has drawn scorn over the years as critics assailed the event as a recipe for the kind of disaster that played out on Friday in front of thousands of people. The crash has led to calls that officials consider halting 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 the last 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 on 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 including Leeward 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 prize money is up for grabs, and a local sports book even took wagers this year on the event.
Schools often take students on field trips to the races, and Washoe County School Superintendent Heath Morrison said officials will re-examine whether that practice should continue given the tragedy.
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, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. He said the FAA also requires organizers to come up with a thorough race plan and demonstrate to the agency that 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.
'The sport is in delicate shape'
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 injuries 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 and at least a dozen injured last summer in the Mojave Desert in Southern California when a modified pickup truck 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 have an incredible board that looks at all the options. And it's not just us. There is a rather large race community. We will talk with the race classes and the pilots and we'll evaluate what we do."
Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official, said he thinks there's not much that can be done to improve race safety. He said organizers could put a speed limit on the race so fast planes cannot race anymore, or move fans farther away from the planes, but fans don't travel from all around the country to Reno every September to be miles away from the action.
"Other than moving the race course a mile or so away from the grandstands, I don't see how you can make the sport safer," Berliner said. "If you do that, all you're doing is giving spectators a much worse view.
"I'm afraid the sport is in delicate shape at the moment," he added.
Weighing future plans
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.
Tom Rose is a commercial pilot in Mississippi whose his father died racing in the same Reno event in 2002 in what appeared to be similar circumstances, although he crashed far from the crowd.
His father, 62-year-old Tommy Rose, was flying an experimental sport plane about 200 feet off the ground when a stabilizer broke off the tail, his son said Saturday. At that altitude, he had nowhere to go but down.
He said in his dad's case, like many crashes at the air show, he had just pushed his plane beyond its limits in an effort to win, and it broke apart.
"But you want to push your plane to its limits because you want to be competitive. That's what you're there for," he said.
Still, Rose said, he'd like to see the races continue.
"My dad passed doing what he loved, and I think so many of those guys who fly out there would say the same thing," he added. "They'd rather go this way than in a nursing home."
Associated Press Writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.