The Need for Speed

In the wake of a horrific crash, should air racing be allowed to continue?

Innovations like SpaceShipOne always carry risks, like the fatal crash of this P-51. (Left: Doug Benc/Getty Images; right: Garret Woodman/Associated Press)

There was no time to form words. Just the realization, as the silver race plane veered sharply upward, then arced toward the stands and rolled, that something had gone horribly, dangerously wrong. My body tensed, unsure of whether or where to run. Then the plane’s nose pointed straight down, its fate decided, 50 yards from where I was standing. Then impact.

I’ve covered the Reno National Championship Air Races for almost half of its 47-year history. I know the pilots, know the planes, and have seen dozens of “Maydays” and accidents play out. But no spectators had ever been killed, or even hurt, before the accident last September 16, when 11 people died and 74 more were injured.

The next day, the racing pits were silent and somber, as shell-shocked crews packed up trailers and equipment. Even hardened race pilots and crew chiefs, who’d taken the deaths of numerous race pilots in stride, wandered the pits with stricken faces, too overwhelmed to speak. But eventually, officials of various sorts are going to have to grapple with what happened and figure out what to do about air racing.

One reason no spectators had been hurt at Reno before was that so much thought had already been given to safety. The fastest race planes reach speeds of 500 mph, and they fly six to eight laps around an 8.5-mile oval pylon course at treetop height, but rarely close to each other. Most of the course is also far away from the crowd, over uninhabited desert.

But in any sport that pushes engines and machines to their limits, there’s always a chance that an out-of-control racer, or its debris, will cause injury or death. In 2001, The Charlotte Observer reported that 260 drivers and fans, including children, had died at car-racing events over the previous 11 years. The only way to guarantee spectators’ safety is to remove them entirely. But without spectators, there’d be no ticket sales or sponsors to fund the races.

So what do we do? With only 200,000 spectators a year, air racing doesn’t have anywhere near the following that car racing does. The easy answer is to shut the air races down.

But the reason race planes (and cars) go so fast is that they incorporate significant innovation—some of which ends up benefiting commercial products. In 1991, Lancair International raced its four-seat Lancair IV prototype in the Unlimited Class at Reno—alongside P-51 fighter planes—to prove that a “family” airplane could also be competitively fast. A fixed-landing-gear version derived from that plane is now the top-of-the-line single-engine piston plane that Cessna sells.

The Pond Racer, which also competed in the Unlimited Class at Reno, gave Burt Rutan (the aeronautical designer famous for the round-the-world Voyager plane) valuable experience in high-temperature materials and high-speed aerodynamics that helped his company design SpaceShipOne—the first privately built manned spacecraft to reach space twice in two weeks.

Other examples abound. Electronic engine control and other technologies refined at Reno are now in Textron Lycoming’s widely used general-aviation engines. Reno also yielded the propeller technology manufactured by Hartzell Propeller, an industry leader. Ditto for Grove Aircraft Company’s high-performance wheels and brakes.

Equally important, however, is that racing motivates people—in the stands as well as in the pits—to think in more-innovative ways. Jon Sharp, a pilot and designer who won 15 championships at Reno, says his racing experience helped him get hired at Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works, and that he was able to apply a lot of what he learned building race planes to Lockheed projects.

But innovation necessarily involves uncertainty and, therefore, risk. Every time a tragedy happens, from a space shuttle exploding, to race-car debris killing spectators, to a race plane veering disastrously off course, we have to ask ourselves again whether those things that inspire our imagination are worth the toll they inevitably exact.

Is racing essential? No. But nurturing innovative thinking is. Not everyone will decide that the inspiration of watching air races is worth whatever risk it entails. I may not go back myself. But continuing the races, and letting people make their own decisions about attending, might save something far more important than the races themselves.