April 13, 2012
On Wednesday the National Transportation Safety Board issued preliminary findings on the cause of the accident that took the lives of race pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators last September 16. Based on its preliminary findings, the Board made seven recommendations to increase the safety of air racing. They all seem reasonable enough, and many race fans, wondering whether or not air racing would even continue after last year’s horrific accident, probably breathed a little easier when they saw words used in the recommendations like “evaluate the feasibility of ” and “develop a system that.” What many of us feared were words like “stop.”
One finding in particular demonstrates the value of external review. It came in a letter to Thomas Camp, the president of the National Air Racing Group Unlimited Division. The raceplanes in this division are almost all modified warbirds, like P-51 Mustangs or Hawker Sea Furys, that weigh at least 4,500 pounds. (Leeward’s P-51 “Galloping Ghost” was racing in this division when it crashed.) In the letter to Camp, the NTSB pointed out that the division’s rules for highly modified warbirds are not the same as those for airplanes custom-built to race in the division. Owners of custom-built airplanes have to prove that their aircraft are structurally sound within the anticipated flight envelope, but the warbird modifications are not required to be flight tested “while operating within the speed and flight regimes that would be encountered on the race course.”
According to Reno Air Racing Association spokesperson Valerie Miller-Moore, the association will consider the NTSB’s recommendations with those of a blue-ribbon panel the association put together last January. That panel, says Miller-Moore, was also directed “to look at the event as a whole, at everything and anything,” and was given maps of the course and layouts of the stands. Members of the panel are race pilots Steve Hinton and Jon Sharp, former NTSB chairman Jim Hall, and former FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nick Sabatini. Miller-Moore says the association expects the Blue Panel report within two weeks. Though declining to specify which ones, she also says that the association has already implemented some of the NTSB recommendations.
The racing association has scheduled the 2012 event for September 12 through 16.
February 6, 2012
January 10, 2012
As far as Washington hearings go, today’s National Transportation Safety Board panel on air race and air show safety was cordial. But the questions and answers suggest a battle brewing.
Panelists, including FAA officials and air show professionals, described procedures and regulations already in place to assure safety at shows and races. Board members were, politely, looking for more—some response to last year’s terrible show season, when a pilot and 10 spectators were killed at the Reno air races and five pilots were killed in airshow crashes. It appears that just strengthening existing procedures may not cut it.
The sternest moment of the morning session came when NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman pressed Reno Air Racing Association officials to explain how the prescribed 1,000-foot buffer zone between spectators and the race track had been decided. She assured RARA president Mike Houghton and rules chairman Michael Major that this was an area the NTSB would look into.
Several board members wondered whether special medical certificates should be required for the more physically demanding flying done by racers and show pilots, and that’s a good point. Others questioned FAA Flight Standards officer John McGraw about how much oversight the FAA had delegated to airshow professionals in certifying pilots and aircraft. A reasonable concern, although one would think that airshow professionals are precisely the right people to certify pilots and aircraft. Their survival as a profession depends on it. Plus they know their stuff—probably better than FAA officials, who are responsible for overseeing many different types of operations.
Even though International Council of Air Shows president John Cudahy emphasized that airshows hadn’t had a spectator fatality in more than 50 years, the NTSB was searching for a change to recommend. Increased setbacks? More regulations? More thorough inspections of aircraft modifications? Increased standards for pilots? Air boss George Cline may have given them one answer. As an air boss, Cline has overseen safety standards and operations at airshows for 20 years, but he is not certified—because there is no certification program for an air boss. Create the standards for certification, Cline suggested. Not a bad idea, but I have a feeling it won’t stop there.
October 3, 2011
Teams gathered their experimental planes in Santa Rosa, California last week for a competition of their environmental industriousness. The Green Flight Challenge awards some serious prize money to promote what they hope is the future of flight: quiet, fuel-efficient, and with low-emissions. The aircraft, powered by green fuels like hydrogen or electricity, must fly 200 miles in less than two hours and use less than one gallon of fuel per occupant, or the equivalent in electricity, to be eligible for the $1.35 million first place purse.
Thirteen teams signed up for the Challenge, but only three teams made it to the actual race without dropping out or being disqualified. Performed over the course of a week, the challengers must meet requirements in three separate tests: noise, performance, and speed.
Two teams were up to the task, fulfilling all requirements. The electric powered Pipistrel scored first place, announced at the awards ceremony Monday afternoon. According to its website:
The Taurus Electro G2 [model of Pipistrel] can use a shorter runway, climbs faster and performs much better than the gasoline-powered version when it comes to high altitude operations. All this is possible thanks to the specially-developed emission-free Pipistrel’s 40kW electric power-train.
One other plane was up to the challenge, though with slightly lower scores than the Pipistrel: the e-Genius. Also a two-seater electric plane, the German plane uses a 60-kilowatt motor and is backed by Airbus. Though it didn’t take top honors, the team will still take home $120,000 for second place and an additional $10,000 for the Lindbergh Quiet Aircraft Prize.
The Green Flight Challenge was founded by the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation and is sponsored by Google, while NASA provides the total $1.65 million in cash prizes through their Centennial Challenges Program.
September 2, 2011
From the Chicago Daily Tribune, November 28, 1920: “At last the pride of the Army air service, the Verville-Packard chasse biplane, has established its worth by romping ahead of thirty-four starters in the first Pulitzer trophy aeronautical race, held Thanksgiving day at Mitchel field, Mineola, [Long Island, New York].” The airplane was piloted by Lieutenant Corliss C. Moseley, who flew the course in 44 minutes and 29 seconds: “Never in the history of official flying in America has a man traveled with such great velocity,” the paper reported.
The race met with great enthusiasm. “A wonderful showing,” exclaimed Charles Dickson, the president of the Aero Club of Illinois. “Why, I tell you that before the middle of next summer our skies will be filled with planes…. We’ll have passenger and express lines stretching out from Chicago like the spokes of a giant wheel. Everybody will be flying.”
Finishing second was Captain Harold Hartney, who completed the course in a Thomas-Morse scout in 47 minutes and 3/100 seconds. Third was Albert “Bert” Acosta—the only civilian—in an Italian Ansaldo S.V.A. More than half the race finishers flew de Havilland DH-4s, aka “the flaming coffin,” nicknamed for its temperamental pressurized gas tank.
The gold trophy from this first Pulitzer Air Race will be auctioned at Bonhams on Sunday, September 4, and is expected to fetch between $15,000 and $20,000. The race was the highlight of the National Air Races in the early 1920s, much like the Indianapolis 500 was for automobile fans. Sponsored by the New York World and the St. Louis Dispatch to promote aviation, the Pulitzer race ran from 1920 to 1925; the large silver trophy (listing all winners from 1920 to 1925) is part of the National Air and Space Museum’s collections.
Moseley would go on to help found Western Air Express in Los Angeles in 1924. Authors A.D. Hopkins and K.J. Evans write in The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas, that in 1925, Western Air Express “was not yet in the passenger-carrying business.” But on one flight to Las Vegas that August, as his heavily laden biplane struggled to get off the ground, Moseley saw a hand grabbing on to the wing’s outer leading edge. The hand belonged to a 16-year-old “hobo who had been admiring the plane.” After Moseley coaxed the boy onto the wing (he was too frightened to get into the cockpit), Moseley continued on to Los Angeles where, the authors report, “the boy had been stripped of every stitch of his clothing except his cuffs and collar” by the 90 mph winds. The stowaway “was never named, but was reportedly given a train ticket back to Las Vegas.”
And some clothes, we hope.
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