Monday, September 26, 2011

Reflecting on Reno

It's been difficult for me to sort out a number of conflicting impulses in the aftermath of the crash of Galloping Ghost at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, NV. My initial reflexive reaction was to recoil from the pointless tragedy. So much death and destruction for so little purpose! In the wake of the mishap, I would not have protested a decision to end these events forever. And yet...

In another context, these words have appeared in this venue:
"...it is very good for the character to engage in sports which put your life in danger from time to time. It breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities which probably cannot be got in any other way, and a habit of quick decisions."
This was written by Nevil Shute Norway in his autobiography, Slide Rule. And he did engage in such sporting activities: offshore yachting, motor racing, and aerial exhibitions. Air racing fits neatly into this context and has, in fact, a long heritage in aeronautical development.

Not long ago, I acquired a copy of The Conquering Wing by Grover C. Loening. This author was a giant figure in the early decades of American aviation. He managed the Wright Aircraft factory for Orville Wright, founded his own aircraft manufacturing firm, and made important contributions to aeronautical design. But in this book, published in 1970, he chose to write a work of fiction to convey what aviation was like in the U.S. prior to the First World War. Air racing is central to Loening's plot as it was central to pushing the bounds of technology before the imperatives of combat took over that role. And Grover Loening was there!

The names of the great air race trophies resonate with us. The Thompson Trophy, the Bendix Trophy, the Schneider Trophy. In pursuit of these prizes, the great pilots and engineers advanced the state of the art. Who can say what ships "the Few" would have had to launch against the onslaught of the Luftwaffe if Spitfire designer Reg Mitchell hadn't the opportunity to design the Supermarine S.6B (and its immediate progenitors) for the Schneider Cup?

The National Championship Air Races in Reno have carried on this rich tradition – but they have not fulfilled the role. Aeronautical engineering has passed by the air race. It no longer can serve as a technology driver. The only role left to it is commemoration of the glory of a bygone era. Who can say that isn't enough, for the zealous participants who willingly assume the obvious mortal risks?

But there must be a corollary to Shute's endorsement of danger-laced sport, stipulating that the dangers must not, beyond irreducible minima, devolve upon non-participants. In many cases – mountaineering, spelunking, white-water kayaking, as examples – all of the risk is assumed by the participant. But in some cases the risk to life and limb flows outward to others. For example, there has been controversy in the offshore yacht racing community over races that were started in awful weather, with a foreseeable likelihood that air-sea rescue teams would be called on to risk their lives to recover crews in distress. And now, there is controversy in the air race community, and in the wider community surrounding the races, about the risks assumed by spectators. This issue has been confronted by other motor sports and by the related air show community. Now the air race world will have to adapt.

The argument that spectators at high-risk events have somehow "volunteered" to accept the risk by choosing to be present does not hold water. It is the obligation of the participants and the event organizers to so arrange things that the dangers to which spectators are exposed are mitigated to the greatest degree possible. No "hold harmless" printed on the back of a ticket can change this.

Motor racing and the air-shows have implemented serious risk-mitigation efforts, triggered in each case by horrific mass-casualty mishaps. Motor racing changed forever after the 1955 LeMans Gran Prix accident. Thereafter, improved barriers, track reconfiguration and performance limits (e.g., restrictor plates) led to a profound reduction in spectator risk.

For the airshow world, the triggering event was the disastrous accident at the 1988 Ramstein Airshow in Germany. Three aircraft of the Italian Frecce Tricolori demonstration team crashed into the crowd causing 67 fatalities and hundreds of injuries on the ground. This led to regulations requiring designated buffers (of sizes that depend on aircraft performance) and a ban on aerobatic maneuvers that direct kinetic energy toward the spectators. In the U.S., each airshow functions under an FAA waiver that codifies these requirements.

An air race is a somewhat different animal. Because of the oval course configuration, the notion of "no energy directed toward the spectators" has been regarded as impractical for air races. (At Reno, the Grandstand is located in the apron area across the runway at the "bottom" of the oval course (left).) Thus, the tragedy at Reno was made possible.

It has been suggested that the spectators could be relocated inside the oval course. This notion has several drawbacks: (1) The cost of relocating the race's infrastructure could be prohibitively high; (2) much of the action would take place behind the spectators; and (3) the dimensions of the oval courses for the smaller, slower classes are confining.

There may be another alternative; one that would require the abandonment of two-dimensional thinking.

Keep the Grandstand and the Start/Finish line where they are. Run a "lap" that begins with a straight course from left to right across the front of the crowd (with an appropriate buffer distance ) at an altitude no lower than 1,200 feet AGL, After passing the crowd, there would be a tear-drop course reversal beginning with a turn away from the crowd and incorporating a descent to an altitude no higher than 1,000 feet AGL and then a second opposite direction straight pass in front of the stands. At the end of the second straight, a course reversal in the vertical plane (an "Immelman") to re-establish the aircraft on the initial straight.

This would give the spectators a good show, require a bit more of the pilots than "fly low, go fast and turn left", and enhance safety by ensuring that no kinetic energy is directed toward the crowd.

I can claim no qualification to justify my making suggestions to the air racing community at this sad time. But perhaps this sort of "out of the horizontal plane" thinking can help to bring about practical changes that will allow the Air Race tradition to continue and make the loss of Jimmy Leeward and ten others the impetus for a new era of reduced risk at Reno.

Jimmy Leeward – Gone West, 16 September 2011


Shortfinals said...

I have a grave difficulty with air racing, as such. Yes, undoubtedly, the 'R' engine developed for the S.6 and S.6B lead to the 'Merlin' (as used in 'Galloping Ghost'), and yes, in Europe, manouvers by aircraft at flying displays on the 'B' axis (towards the crowd) are banned - see Ramstein, and the horrific DH 110 crash at Farnborough. Kinetic energy of crash components, fuel, etc should be, in the event of a catastrophic event, be directed away from all spectators (for my sins, I had 4 years on the UK Airport Operators Technical Committee, and commented on the original draft of CAP 403).

I have another, philosophical argument about racing WW2 aircraft. They are a 'vanishing' resource; like land, 'they're making any more' (we shall ignore Me262, Yak 3 and Fw190 clones). Even when they are not being destroyed in crashes, they are using up the rapidly diminishing pool of spares which NON-racing, but flyable, WW2 types rely on! Speaking as one who has organised many flying events, I'd rather see WW2 aircraft displayed safely, for the greater good of the public, than raced to oblivion. After all, we lose some due to flying accidents, each year - including a fine P-51 at Duxford, this year.

Thank you for reading this.


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Mr. Sharp:

Thanks for reading and commenting.

I'm led to wonder if it would be a good thing for the Unlimited Class racers to be required to be new-buildings rather than modified classics. That way, the demands of racing might lead to advances in technology and design, instead of just fostering the dead-end we have today.

Please stop by again,