WASHINGTON — Industry officials stopped short of suggesting drastic changes to safety guidelines at air shows and air races across the country before a sometimes skeptical National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday.
They did, however, signal they will continue clarifying rules protecting pilots and spectators in the wake of a Reno crash that killed 11 people in September.
John McGraw, the Federal Aviation Administration’s deputy director for flight standards, told NTSB members that current regulations do not need to be revamped. But he said he is open to change if the FAA learns “of a risk that exceeds the boundary of what we think is acceptable.”
When directly asked by NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman whether he thought air show and air race rules are stringent enough, McGraw did not hesitate to answer.
“Yes, I think so,” he said. “Most of the changes in our policy and guidance are currently to make it clearer and easier to understand the requirements in place.”
During a midday press briefing, Hersman said the federal agency is currently investigating incidents at 11 separate air shows or air races and hopes to learn valuable safety lessons. The hearing was meant to serve as an “opportunity for us to gather information, not come to any conclusions,” she added.
“They said that they thought the standards are adequate as they exist now,” she said of the consensus among two of the three panels.
John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, said that the United States is one of the most conservative countries in the world when it comes to air performance standards.
Cudahy said the latest iteration of the air show council’s safety policy relies on a four-pronged approach: keeping pilots a secure distance from the audience, making sure flyers complete an Aerobatic Competency Evaluation (ACE) program, maintaining an unmarked safe zone known as an “aerobatic box,” and prohibiting pilots from “directing any energy” toward the crowd.
Industry spokesman George Cline drew raised eyebrows when he admitted air bosses — whom he likened to “the director and the producer” of any air show — do not currently require any certification.
Aspiring air bosses can take optional courses offered through the council and shadow more experienced air bosses, said Cline, who is president of Air Boss, Inc. Basically, pilots have to “take it upon themselves” to learn what the key role entails, he said.
During board questioning, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt asked Cline whether he could walk into an airport and become an air boss today. Cline told him if any show or race organization wished to hire him, such a hypothetical scenario would not be out of the question.
“And that disturbs me,” Sumwalt replied. “Thank you.”
Sean Tucker, a performer with Team Oracle, offered another concern in his testimony. Pilot Tucker urged NTSB members to elevate industry standards “just a little bit higher” to ensure only the best flyers lift off the runway.
“I can find an ACE to give me my card,” Tucker said, referring to a pilot training program and its de facto diploma. “And in probably less than 100 hours, I can probably go out and fly in front of my mom and pop. And not be qualified.”