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Tue, Jan 10, 2012

Witnesses At NTSB Air Show Hearing Defend Industry, Make Safety Recommendations

Hersman Says Spectator Areas, Air Bosses Will Be Scrutinized

At the much-anticipated hearing held by the NTSB on air show and air race safety, witnesses made a handful of suggestions for improving safety, while the industry strongly defended its safety record.

In the opening session, representatives from the FAA and ICAS said they work as "partners" in the process of staging air shows. But FAA director of Flight Standards Service John McGraw said the agency maintains its position as a regulator. In responding to a question from Chairman Hersman about the physical stress of flying aerobatics and races, McGraw said he was not aware of any "systemic problem" that would show a correlation between accidents and pilots who might become incapacitated during a performance, and no special medical certification was necessary. USA Today reports that McGraw told the board that current regulations regarding the events are sufficient. "At this point, I'm not aware of any changes — at least any significant or substantive changes — to the policy and guidance we have in place," he said. "If we become aware of a risk that exceeds the boundary of what we think is acceptable, we will make those changes. But not currently."

The Reno Gazette-Journal reports that during a break in the proceedings, NTSB chair Debora Hersman said one issue that should be reviewed is the setback between an air show box or race course and the spectator area. She said that during testimony it was mentioned that those distances had not been revised since 1990, but that the types of aircraft performing have changed. While admitting that air shows have a good safety record regarding accidents, the tragedy at Reno caused her to want "a better understanding" of the setbacks for various classes of races. “Performers are assuming the risk,” she said, “but when a spectator comes to an event they don’t expect to be in a position where their lives are at risk.”

Another area of concern is the lack of standardized qualifications for air bosses at such events. George Cline, president of Air Boss Inc., explained that the air boss essentially runs the show, similar to being an air traffic controller. Cline said there is no certification required for air bosses, a statement supported by Reno Air Racing Association president Mike Houghton. Houghton said the Reno event grooms air bosses, bringing them up through the ranks of deputy air boss and tower chief. He said while the FAA is informed of their activities, the association "keep(s) it on the local level."

"We will certainly be looking at that,” Heresman said during the break.

Jim DiMatteo, former race director for Red Bull Air Racing, said that event is different because the airplanes fly one at a time against the clock rather than head-to-head. He said in 50 races at 27 different locations, there have been no injuries to spectators, pilots, or personnel.

The paper reports that Team Oracle pilot Sean Tucker said that the standards for becoming an air show pilot might need to be strengthened, but that the community does a good job of self-policing and trying to change a pilot's actions if they fly in a dangerous manner. "We're pretty honest with each other because we want to survive," he said. Tucker said he had twice decided not to perform because he did not feel like he was 100 percent, or not prepared for the performance.

Tucker did say that there should be a designated practice area at air shows for pilots to use, and DiMatteo said that TFRs were important for show areas.

Hersman said that the board has not established a timeline for making any recommendations concerning safety at air shows and air races, but that changes could come "at any time."

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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