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Hightower Testifies at NTSB Hearing on Air Show and Air Race Safety

By Fareed Guyot, Manager – Electronic Publications, EAA 388642

Rod Hightower and Michael Major
EAA President/CEO Rod Hightower testifies Tuesday, January 10, at the NTSB hearing on air show and air race safety. At Rod’s left is Michael Major, member of the Reno Air Racing Association board of directors. Photo credit: Antion Downs/NTSB

January 10, 2012 - EAA President Rod Hightower testified in a day-long hearing convened Tuesday, January 10, by the National Transportation Safety Board to examine air show and air race safety. Hightower was joined by EAA Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs Sean Elliott as they answered questions from the full NTSB board and staff about EAA’s approach to safety during its annual AirVenture event. The hearing was in response to the deadly crash at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, last September that killed 11 people and injured about 70 others.

NTSB Board Chairman Deborah Hersman stated the hearing’s goal was not to deconstruct a specific event, but instead to raise air show and air race safety awareness, learn how these events are planned and operated, and identify what has been learned in the past that can be applied to future safety. The chairman noted that while there were no air show performer and spectator fatalities in 2009 and 2010, five performers, 10 spectators, and one air racer lost their lives in 2011.

“Today was an important day for aviation,” Hightower said after the hearing. “As the NTSB formulates its concerns and plans recommendations for possible regulation, it is important to remember the excellent spectator safety record for air shows and air racing during the past 60 years.”

The NTSB invited EAA to testify at the hearing because of the organization’s long history and success in hosting its annual EAA AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in, which Hersman attended in 2011. Board members queried Hightower about EAA’s approach to planning, execution, and evaluation of AirVenture flight activities. Hightower said while the event is only seven days, planning goes on throughout the year. He also drew distinctions between the safety requirements for the daily air show at Oshkosh and air operations throughout the rest of the event.

In response to a question about how EAA coordinates safety amongst all the entities at AirVenture, Hightower stated, “The key to managing anything large like that is scale. We try to break them into smaller components. It’s important to have enough people and the right people.

“We rely on professionals in the industry to manage key areas.”

Hightower added some perspective regarding the hearings, saying, “Lessons learned throughout the history of aviation are instrumental in formulating safety practices used successfully across the air show and air racing industry. As the premier global aviation event, AirVenture procedures and safety practices were explained in detail. That experience was showcased and scrutinized today in a very public manner and it was apparent to all present that these practices and policies are effective.

“ It was also evident the professionalism, mentoring, and self-checking culture within the air show and air racing community provides a measure of safety that goes beyond what the current regulations require.”

Mike Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association, appeared along with Hightower on a panel of aviation event organization representatives. Houghton and RARA Board Member Michael Major fielded questions generally about the Reno event; however, NTSB board and staff members focused on how RARA and other organizations calculate what is considered a safe distance and altitude between air operations and spectators.

Houghton said an evaluation of safety calculations were determined to be sound following a 2007 crash of a racing aircraft, yet RARA always looks to make improvements.

“We looked at the actual degree of dispersement versus the calculations for that particular race course,” Houghton said. “While the debris stayed within the calculations, jersey barriers were added to a location outside the race course for extra protection.”

Hightower responded to a similar question, in reference to the size of the aerobatic box at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, and how EAA seeks to protect populations on the east side of the airport.

“Our aerobatic box is limited based on this. And that’s why we don’t have military jet teams,” Hightower said.

It was noted that no spectator has been killed at an air show since a 1951 incident in Colorado. In the wake of that incident, which resulted in 20 deaths, the International Council of Air Shows implemented a safety program to create standards for training, infrastructure, and operations. John Cudahy, ICAS president, said that the basic elements of that program are unchanged but that key improvements over the last 20 years have contributed to a vast improvement in the safety record at air shows.

The FAA answered questions about how its oversight of air shows and air racing contributes to safety. The FAA issues waivers to air show organizers and certifications to aerobatic pilots. The waiver issuances come directly from the FAA; however, other certifications are often delegated to organizations like ICAS with FAA oversight. There are really no regulations that cover air racing and pilots when it comes to certification, but in the case of Reno the FAA approves the standards that the RARA enforces on pilots and aircraft to participate in each of its racing classes.

The EAA and Reno groups were joined during their testimony by George Cline, president of Air Boss Inc., who talked about the role of an air boss at an aviation event. Cline said that there is a fair amount mentoring in the industry but no specific federal regulations that require that an air boss be certified. When asked by an NTSB board member if they should be regulated Cline responded, “It would be advantageous for us to make it happen.”

The hearing had three separate witness panels covering distinct areas: Regulatory and Oversight, Aviation Event Organizations, and Aviation Event Operations. The final panel featured directors from various air shows, along with representatives from the Commemorative Air Force and Red Bull Air Racing, and longtime air show performer Sean D. Tucker.

“My compliments to the NTSB and the FAA on their commitment to air show and air racing safety, and for their consummate professionalism throughout today’s hearing,” Hightower said.  “I am confident that neither the FAA nor the NTSB are determined to shut down air shows and air racing, but are continually seeking ways to improve safety.”

The archived video of the entire hearing will be available beginning Wednesday at “News and Events” area of the NTSB website.

Rod Hightower's post-hearing interview:

 

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