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New Reno air course deemed safer by pilots

RENO, Nev. -- Pilots are praising a new course designed to keep them farther away from spectators at the Reno National Championship Air Races after last year's accident that killed 11 people.

Pilots who flew the course for the first time during a training seminar last week ahead of the Sept. 12-16 races reacted positively, said Reno Air Racing Association President Mike Houghton.

The repositioning of several pylons moves the course about 150 feet farther away from spectators and helps to ease the gravitational pull on pilots competing in the fastest of six aircraft classes by smoothing out some turns, he said.

"I don't think it'll have an impact on speeds. (It'll affect) just the G-force pilots feel," Houghton said. "Every change we've made has taken safety to the next level, and this is one of those steps."

A modified World War II P-51 Mustang crashed in front of VIP boxes last September at the Reno National Championship Air Races, killing 11 and injuring about 70 others.

The competition at Reno Stead Airport is the only event of its kind in the world, with planes flying wing-tip-to-wing-tip around an oval pylon track, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground and at speeds of over 500 mph.

Last week's seminar, which drew nearly 50 rookies and veterans, for the first time offered special training to provide a feel for the gravitational pull pilots will experience when racing.

Pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, was traveling at 530 mph when his P-51 Mustang experienced a significant event that caused the plane to pitch skyward while making a turn, then roll and slam into the ground nose first near box seats. Investigators said instruments from the aircraft showed the plane exceeded 9 Gs, and that appears to have incapacitated the pilot as blood rushed from his brain.

Houghton said the new course is expected to reduce the G-force on pilots in the fastest classes from roughly 3 to 2. It's difficult for people to maintain awareness at 5 Gs. Average roller coasters expose riders to about 2 to 3 Gs, but only for brief moments.

The changes are in line with safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after last year's crash.

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