Reno Air Races plans to change course this fall

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RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Organizers of the national air racing championships in Reno plan to change the race course for the fastest planes to keep them farther from spectators after last year's mass casualty crash near a grandstand.

Reno Air Racing Association Director Mike Houghton said Tuesday they will ask federal regulators for permission to soften some curves and move the largest course away from the crowd.

He made the announcement as a blue ribbon panel unveiled its list of safety recommendations, including formalizing plane inspection procedures. The panel also advised further study of possible age limits for pilots.

Jimmy Leeward was 74 when his World War II-era airplane crashed Sept. 16, killing himself and 10 spectators and injuring more than 70 others.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

A blue ribbon panel of experts reviewing the deadly crash at last year's National Championship Air Races in Reno is making a number of recommendations to make the event safer but none would prevent the competition from continuing as scheduled in September, officials told The Associated Press.

Several of the recommendations call for changes that the Reno Air Racing Association already has initiated, including appointing a safety director with the independent authority to halt the competition if necessary in the case of a safety concern, according to two officials who have seen the panel's final report.

None of the recommendations run contrary to earlier preliminary suggestions from the National Transportation Safety Board in April, said the officials who spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity late Monday because they were not authorized to speak publicly prior to a formal announcement scheduled for Tuesday.

Four or five of the recommendations are similar to the NTSB's recommendations ideas, they said, including developing formal protocols to ensure the engineering integrity of planes that have been modified for the races, like the World War II-era P-51 Mustang that plunged into the box seats in front of the grandstand, killing pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators, and injuring more than 70 others on Sept. 16.

NTSB officials said earlier that Leeward's plane, the "Galloping Ghost," was heavily modified and had never been flown as fast as he was racing it that day on that course. To ramp up the aircraft's speed, the plane's wingspan had been shortened from about 37 feet to about 29 feet, and flight controls were changed.

The Reno Air Racing Association announced the appointment of the four-member panel in January to provide a review of the crash and the event's safety independent of the one being conducted by the NTSB, which may or may not complete its formal probe before this year's championships begin Sept. 12.

The panel's other members were Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; Nick Sabatini, former associate administrator of aviation safety for the Federal Aviation Administration; Jon Sharp, an aeronautical engineer and the winningest pilot in the event's history; and Steven Hinton, a champion pilot and top stunt pilot in the film industry.

The blue ribbon panel's report being released Tuesday may be notable for what it does not do. It does not directly address mechanics of the plane that crashed or the cause of the crash. It also did not address the proper distance between competing planes and spectators, or the possibility of requiring pilots to wear special flight suits intended to reduce the impacts of gravitational force at extremely high speeds, the officials said.

The association's event at Reno Stead Airport is the only event of its kind, where planes fly wing-tip-to-wing-tip around an oval, aerial pylon track, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground and at speeds that can top 500 mph.

The association's board of directors created the position of safety director in February and filled the job with Michael Stollings, a former supervisor of flying for the U.S. Air Force with nearly 40 years of aviation experience.

Last week, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority's board of trustees voted unanimously to renew the necessary special use permit for at least another year as long as organizers follow all federal safety rules and secure $100 million in insurance. Organizers said they expect to secure the insurance this week.