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Organizers of Reno air show plan to go on, despite 2011 tragedy

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WASHINGTON – Organizers of the Reno Air Race plan to continue the show in 2012 in spite of the accident last year that killed 11 people, including three Arizona residents, an event executive said Tuesday.

Michael Houghton was in Washington to testify at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the spike in air show fatalities in 2011. Houghton, who is president and CEO of the Reno Air Race Association, said after his testimony that families of the September accident victims had pushed his organization to continue the race.

“The tragedy that we experienced in September of last year had a real profound effect on a number of us,” Houghton said. “Since that time we’ve been focusing on the different elements that will have an impact on the races as we move forward.”

Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, was killed at the Reno event in September when a World War II era plane crashed into the crowd. Wogan, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, was in the disabled seating with his father, when the accident occurred.

Wogan was killed, along with the pilot and nine others on the ground. Wogan’s father was one of 66 people who suffered “serious” injuries, according to the NTSB’s preliminary report on the incident.

George Hewitt, 60, and his wife, Wendy, 56, both of Fort Mohave were also killed in the crash, according to news reports.

Jeffrey Jones, an attorney who is representing the family of another victim of the crash, said that while some families might be pushing to continue the race, he doubts that most feel that way. Jones, who was at Tuesday’s NTSB hearing, said he thinks the first goal of most of the families would be for the show’s safety.

“Most of the families are interested in the safety and making sure the board investigation really scrutinizes this air race and examines what could have been avoided,” Jones said.

Tuesday’s hearing was called to discuss safety issues at air shows and races, after fatalities at such events jumped from zero in 2009 and 2010 to 16 across the nation in 2011.

The hearing included testimony from the Federal Aviation Administration and other air show organizations and companies on issues of oversight, safety precautions, training and regulations for the events.

John McGraw, the FAA’s deputy director of flight standards service, testified that he believes such regulations are already stringent enough and that wholesale changes are not needed now.

John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, agreed but said there is always room for improvement.

“I think that we’ve demonstrated that our current relationship with the FAA and a strong industry initiative to constantly improve safety is moving the ball forward, probably much more than new regulation could,” Cudahy said.

Houghton said officials at the Reno race – which he referred to as “NASCAR in the sky” – are working to secure permits to operate the event but have also launched a “Blue Ribbon Review” to examine the security infrastructure and see if changes needed to be made.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said no changes are likely to come out of the hearing, but that they could come at any time.

“There’s still a lot to learn,” Hersman said, adding that the board is currently reviewing 11 accidents and will offer safety recommendations based on these reviews. “We encourage people to move forward when it comes to safety changes.”