- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 4, 2012

RENO, Nev. Officials are moving ahead with plans for this year’s National Championship Air Races despite a tragic crash at September’s event that killed 11 and injured more than 70, 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 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.

“In short, we’re moving ahead,” Mr. 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.

The deadly crash at the 2011 races - in which a modified World War II-era racing aircraft climbed, rolled and then abruptly plunged nose-first into spectators - led to calls that officials consider ending the event, the only one of its kind in the country. The NTSB has scheduled a hearing Tuesday 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 they are “committed to preserving this unique and historic aviation event” that began four decades ago.

“While we have many challenges to overcome and much work to do, we are optimistic and hopeful that we will again take to the Sierra skies in the near future,” the letter said.

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.

The 2011 races turned deadly when veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., lost control of his World War II-era P-51 Mustang and crashed into the crowd. It was the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno.

Twenty pilots, including Mr. Leeward, have died in that time, race officials said. 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 it has grown into a major tourist attraction in Reno. Local officials said the races generate $80 million for the local economy during the five-day event held every September.

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