The National Championship Air Races in Reno are the last of their kind in the country, and the organizers take obvious pride in their embrace of risk and speed.
At a news conference Friday night in Reno, Mike Houghton, the head of the Reno Air Racing Assn., said, "Every racing pilot understands the risks. They are perhaps the best pilots in the world."
Some of the airplanes in the races can reach speeds of more than 500 mph and fly as low as 50 feet above the ground as they soar around an oval course that is as long as 81/2 miles. The association reminds its pilots: "Always remember to fly low, fly fast and turn left!"
Earlier in the week, Houghton told the Reno Gazette-Journal that a rookie pilot had stopped him after his first run around the course and said, "I just want to thank you guys for holding this race. I can't believe it's legal."
"Well," Houghton told the newspaper, "It's only legal here."
Since the race began in 1964, there had been 19 deaths among pilots, including three in 2007, but no spectators had been killed.
John Cudahy, the president of the International Council of Air Shows, said Friday that no spectators have died at any air show in the country since 1952. Every year, there are more than 325 air shows in the United States and Canada, drawing up to 12 million spectators. He said there have been three pilot fatalities at air shows this year, but none in the three preceding years.
Cudahy, a pilot who has headed the council for 14 years, noted that air shows operate under different federal rules than air races, using a course that runs parallel to the viewing area, not in an oval like those used in Reno. "Our rules are more about maintaining a separation difference from the crowd," he said. "Those rules have provided something close to complete protection for air show spectators."
The air race was the invention of Bill Stead, a rancher and World War II combat veteran who wanted to bring back the thrill he felt as a boy with the air races in Cleveland.
In 1964, with the state chipping in some money to celebrate its centennial, he held the first race at his Sky Ranch, which had a dirt landing field. Two years later, he moved it to the former Stead Air Force Base, which was named after his brother. The event, held in September, has been canceled only once, when all aircraft were grounded 10 years ago after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The races have grown into a huge event that draws about 200,000 flying enthusiasts and dignitaries. Nearly three-quarters of attendees come from outside the area, according to a recent article in the Northern Nevada Business Weekly.
Houghton said Friday that the air races inject more than $80 million a year into the area's economy, which puts it among the top tourism draws for the region, which has been hit hard by the recession and the expansion of tribal gaming in Northern California.
Federal aviation officials and air race organizers spend months preparing for the races.
The Reno Air Racing Assn. is required to draw up a comprehensive plan that includes requirements for pilots and aircraft.
All pilots must have current medical certificates and demonstrate their competency before they are allowed to participate, said Ian Gregor, the FAA spokesman for the Pacific Division.
In describing the federal agency's role two years ago, the national air show coordinator at the time said the goal was to ensure the safety of spectators.
"The pilots are assuming the risk inherent in racing, and we look after the crowd," Jeff Weller said in FAA Aviation News.
The article continued: "There has not been a single spectator fatality at Reno. 'In fact, the biggest risk to spectators,' Weller says with a smile, 'is hurting themselves walking around the pit area and tripping while mesmerized by the sights and sounds of race planes up close.' "
Houghton said the area's responders train for mass casualties with exercises every two years. "The entire community came together," he said, "and did a job in the most professional way possible."
The FAA also inspects the course and proposed spectator area for races to prevent a crash or collision from injuring viewers.
In August, the FAA canceled a race in Camarillo because of concerns about spectator safety.
The Ultimate Air Race Champions had planned to have airplanes fly around two 60-foot pylons at either end of the airport.
On Tuesday, race officials barred six of the 21 jets scheduled to race in Reno after consulting with federal aviation officials, concerned about engine modifications, according to the Gazette-Journal.
Times staff writer Ashley Powers contributed to this report.
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Twenty pilots have died in crashes at the Reno air races since 1964, including three deaths in 2007 alone. At least six of the pilots killed in the event's 47-year history were from Southern California. No spectators were killed in previous accidents.
Fatal crashes include:
2008: Erica Simpson crashed after the wings on her plane snapped while attempting a midair maneuver.
2007: In one week, there were three separate fatal crashes. Steve Dari, Brad Morehouse and Gary Hubler all died within a four-day span.
2002: Gary Levitz died after his plane fell apart in midair and showered debris over several houses.
1998: Richard Roberts crashed in the desert after having a heart attack. The 63-year-old was a safety inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration.
1978: Dimitry Prian and Don DeWalt were killed when their planes collided during a race. Both were Southern California natives -- Prian from Long Beach and DeWalt from El Monte.
1975: M.D. Washburn of Houston was killed when the wing of his T-6 clipped a pylon and his plane plowed into the ground during a race.
Source: Associated Press