RENO, Nev. (AP) — After considering canceling this year's competition, officials are moving ahead with plans for the 2012 National Championship Air Races despite a tragic crash at September's event that killed 11 and injured more than 70 spectators on the edge of the grandstand, the head of the Reno Air Races said Wednesday.
Association President Mike Houghton said it's "way too early" to say whether there will be changes to the format of the 49th annual event scheduled for Sept. 12-16 at Reno-Stead Airport.
But he said the association is enlisting a panel of experts, including former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall, to help ensure its safety. The panel is to report back in 90 days with any recommended revisions. In the meantime, Houghton said, it's "business as usual" with a full slate of races on the schedule.
"We already have booked some world-class performers to help us welcome back the world's greatest pilots," he said.
"In short, we're moving ahead," Houghton told more than 100 supporters, who cheered the announcement at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. "We are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to hold this historic event in 2012."
Race officials said they must secure a number of permits to make sure the competition happens. But as of now, tickets for the event are on sale and group orders for box seats are being accepted.
The deadly crash at the 2011 races was captured on video from a number of graphic angles and appeared on television and the Internet. The footage showed the P-51 Mustang climbing sharply upward at more than 400 mph, then rolling and plunging nose-first into spectators.
The wreck prompted calls that officials consider ending the event, the only one of its kind in the country.
The NTSB has scheduled a hearing Jan. 10 to examine the safety of air shows and air races in general.
The Reno group's directors said in a Dec. 28 letter on their website that while they have "many challenges to overcome and much work to do," they are committed to preserving the aviation event that began four decades ago.
Among other challenges, the board must secure licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration and Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. They also have to deal with insurance costs and $1.5 million in losses caused by the cancellation of the 2011 event. Two lawsuits have been filed over the crash so far.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said organizers must develop a comprehensive plan each year that includes requirements for pilot and aircraft qualifications, and a detailed course layout.
Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., became the 20th pilot killed at the competition in the Sept. 16 crash, but it was the first time spectators were killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno.
Three pilots died while racing in the 2007 competition, and another was killed during a practice race the next year.
Past deaths have led to on-again, off-again calls for better safety at the races over the years, but the event has grown into a major tourist attraction in Reno. Local officials say the five-day event held every September generates $80 million annually for the local economy.
The NTSB is investigating the cause of the latest crash. Its findings could be released as early as September or as late as November, Houghton said.
"If we were to sit back and wait for the results of that investigation, we could be sitting here doing nothing through October and we would miss the September event," he said. "We can't wait for that. We've got to move forward."
Houghton added the review panel is composed of "some of the geniuses within aviation."
"I think together, we should be able to answer a lot of those nagging questions that are troubling all of us," he said.
The panel's other members are Nick Sabatini, former associate administrator of aviation safety for the FAA; 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 panel is expected to present preliminary recommendations to the racing association in early April.
During the competition, planes fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.
Reno has the world's only multi-class air races, with six classes of aircraft competing, said Don Berliner of Alexandria, Va., president of the Society of Air Racing Historians. Air races elsewhere involve only a single class of aircraft, he said.
Houghton said if the races do end up getting cancelled for financial or other reasons, organizers will hold an air show or memorial in September instead.
"We certainly have carefully considered our other options besides the running of the Air Races," he said.
But he said it would not be feasible financially or logistically to operate "anything less than the full National Championship Air races and Air Show" beyond next year.
"Many of the victims, their families, air race teams and fans have told us they are coming to Reno this September no matter what. We feel it is our obligation to give them something, no matter what," Houghton said.