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FAA bans race at Camarillo air show over safety concerns

High-performance propeller planes were going to weave through inflated pylons at an altitude of 15 feet at the Ultimate Air Race Championship.

August 19, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • World War II-era planes fly in formation at a previous Camarillo Air Show.
World War II-era planes fly in formation at a previous Camarillo Air Show. (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles…)

Saying they are concerned about the safety of spectators, federal officials have refused to approve a controversial airplane race that was promoted as one of the main attractions at this weekend's Camarillo air show.

Instead of watching high-performance propeller planes weave through inflated pylons at an altitude of 15 feet, the expected crowd of 40,000 will have to settle for a more modest aerial display.

The decision by the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the Ultimate Air Race Championship from staging a high-speed competition that has been advertised as "Faster than NASCAR" and a showcase for seven of the world's best pilots.

In refusing to clear the event, FAA officials questioned the qualifications of the pilots to fly such a race and the safety of the slalom course, including the distance between the aircraft and spectators, who, they contend, could be hit by debris if a crash occurred.

One of the show's marketing officials and the main organizer of the race is David G. Riggs, who lost his pilot's license for a year and was convicted of reckless flying after buzzing the Santa Monica Pier in a Soviet-era military jet in late 2008.

Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles, said Thursday that the agency has approved a proposal to eliminate the race and have the pilots instead do a formation flight and a single-file fly-by over a line of pylons, which the planes would not go through.

Jon Whited, who is in charge of the Camarillo air show, disagreed with the FAA, saying the race's pilots, including Riggs, are highly skilled and that there is enough room to safely separate the viewing areas from the course.

During the months leading up to the air show, the Ultimate Air Race Championship said repeatedly that it had obtained FAA approval for the race, when it had not.

"We are aware of the misrepresentations," Gregor said. "Our main concern, however, is to ensure that the air show is conducted in a completely safe manner."

Gregor added that members of the Ultimate Air Race Championship continued to state publicly that they were going to hold the race even after they assured the FAA that they had no intentions of doing so.

Though the race has not received an overall approval, Whited said the Ultimate Air Race Championship had received approvals for parts of the event, such as the race manual, which details procedures and rules for the event.

Whited said the race has generated considerable public interest in the air show, but he added that he was unsure what effect the cancellation of the competition will have on attendance.

The Camarillo airport has held aviation shows for 30 years. In 2010, the event attracted about 20,000 visitors, but organizers expect attendance to double this year.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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