In Wake of Reno Tragedy, Insurers Draw Distinctions Between Air Races and Airshows

By Don Jergler | September 23, 2011

With an 11th fatality declared as a result of the crash at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev. on Friday, one of the world’s largest airshow insurers is anxious to draw a distinction between airshows and air races.

Executives at Shannon and Luchs Insurance Agency Inc. acknowledged premiums as well as safety rules could change as a result of public scrutiny over the Reno crash and an airshow crash a day later that killed a pilot, but say they expect little other impact to the airshow industry.

‘Like anything else, insurance premiums could go up, but we don’t see any kind of drastic change happening,’ Dorian Fernandez, president of Shannon and Luchs, told Insurance Journal Wednesday in a phone interview with her and executive vice president Jim Hamerski.

Hamerski added: ‘I think you could see more regulation. I think they’ll probably increase the distance between the spectators and the performers.’

Many aviation insurers and insurers of large events were reluctant to talk about the Reno incident, or the incident in at an airshow in Virginia the following day, because of the anticipated public scrutiny of airshows and air races following the tragedies.

‘Sorry,’ went one email reply to a request for an interview from an executive at a large aviation insurer sent via BlackBerry, ‘but too touchy of a subject this soon after the accident. I’m sure you understand.’

The Shannon and Luchs executives have a great deal of interest in the airshow business and in the general welfare of the industry.

Of the estimated 350 to 400 organized airshows each year in the U.S. and Canada, ‘we probably insure most of those,’ Fernandez said.

‘There are not as many air races, as there are airshows,’ Fernandez said. ‘Air races more about speed, the airshows are about agility. Airshows have skilled performers, renowned for their abilities. These airplanes that they have are specially equipped for the types of performances that they do. There is a difference between an air race and an airshow. From an airshow perspective, there haven’t been any spectator fatalities in an airshow for over 60 years.’

As for the airshow crash Saturday at an airshow in Martinsburg, W. Va., when a post-World War II plane, a T-28, crashed and burst into flames, killing the pilot? ‘The pilot was more than 1,000 feet from the crowd,’ Fernandez said. ‘Not one person in the crowd was in any danger of getting hurt.’

Fernandez said Gaithersburg, Md.-based Shannon and Luchs was approached several years ago by air race organizers about insurance, and the company told the organizers they were not interested in taking on such a liability.

‘Some events we don’t want in the pool,’ she said. ‘It does affect us, if something does happen like this, and that may affect our pool of customers.’

Hamerski also noted that speeds reached by aircraft at airshows are much lower than those seen at air races.

‘Our performers aren’t flying at that kind of speed,’ he said.

In Reno, aircraft reach speeds of around 500 mph. Airshow speeds by comparison are about a fourth, fifth, or even less, than speeds achieved at air races, Hamerski said.

A spokeswoman with R&R Partners, which holds the public relations account for the air races, declined to comment about the incident in Reno and referred all questions to investigators.

‘Unfortunately we cannot answer any questions about the incident on Friday,’ said Tara L. Trovato, the official spokeswoman for the air races.

Meanwhile investigators from the National Transportation and Safety Board are focusing on a wayward part in the air race crash in Reno as a 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into a crowded tarmac.

Several spectators were killed on impact. The death toll rose to 11 on Wednesday. The Washoe County Medical Examiner’s Office positively identified 11 victims of Friday’s crash of a World War II-era P-51 Mustang, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported. About 70 spectators were injured in the crash. Three remained in critical condition, four are in serious condition and one person has been upgraded to fair condition, according to a UPI report.

According to witness accounts, the P-51 Mustang pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white VIP box seats. The plane, flown by 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of ‘Oh my God!’ spread through the crowd.

NTSB officials have been working to determine what caused to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be an ‘elevator trim tab,’ which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.

Investigators said they also recovered part of the tail section, where the tab is located.

NTSB spokesman Nicholas Worrell offered scant new information, and would only say the investigation was ongoing, and that a detailed report is forthcoming in about a week-and-a-half, sometime around Friday, Sept. 30. He gave no information on who insured the event or details on any investigation ongoing by those insurers.

‘We don’t keep up with what the insurance companies are doing,’ Worrell said. ‘We will be releasing a preliminary report next Friday.’

Jake Sunderland, a spokesman for the Nevada Division of Insurance, speculated that Reno Airport likely has basic insurance and that they require the air race organizers to have surplus lines.

‘Because they’re probably custom policies, they don’t have to go through our office, so we don’t have any authority to be a part of this conversation,’ he said, adding, ‘I suspect if we get pulled into it, it will be if people feel like they’re not being taken care of by the insurance companies.’

A tour near the site offered to journalists Saturday revealed debris spread in a fan-shape over more than an acre around a crater roughly 3 feet deep and as much as 8 feet across. Based on the crater’s location, it appears the P-51 Mustang went straight down in the first few rows of VIP box seats, or about 65 feet in front of the leading edge of the grandstand.

Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.

‘This one could have been much worse if the plane had hit a few rows higher up,’ said Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official. ‘We could be talking hundreds of deaths.’

The crash marked 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.

It is the only air race of its kind in the United States. Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the ground at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

The disaster prompted renewed calls for race organizers to consider ending the event because of the dangers. Officials said they would look at everything as they work to understand what happened.

The Mustang that disintegrated into the crowd had minor crashes almost exactly 40 years ago after its engine failed. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed during an air race and it crash landed short of the runway.

P-51 historian Dick Phillips of Burnsville, Minn., said Saturday the plane had had several new engines since then as well as a new canopy and other modifications.

The National Championship Air Races draw thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race. Local schools often hold field trips there, and a local sports book took wagers on the outcomes.

The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots’ practice runs and briefs pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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