Reno, Martinsburg Air Show Plane Crash Deaths: What You Need To Know

In the last two weeks, 10 spectators and 2 aircraft pilots have died in crashes at two separate air show events in Reno, Nevada, and Martinsburg, W.V. The deaths have reverberated across the air show community nationwide as people struggle to make sense of the tragedies.

In the Reno crash, a 74-year-old pilot – a veteran aviator — crashed his World War II-era Mustang P51 plane during a national air race, nosediving into a crowd of onlookers who were watching the action above. At least 10 of the spectators have died, and another 60 were injured, with at least 14 of them facing critical injuries, according to a story by the Associated Press. Initial reports and photographic and video evidence of the crash indicate that a critical part on a wing might have become disconnected, contributing to the disaster. The plane had also undergone major mechanical and airworthiness modifications by its pilot over the years, according to a story in The San Francisco Chronicle.

This is a photo from the 2011 Reno Air Races of the P-51 Mustang just before it hit the ground on Sept. 16, 2011. Eleven people died due to the crash, including the pilot. Photo credit: Reno Journal-Gazette.

In the Martinsburg crash, a decorated 54-year-old former military pilot died when his plane quickly descended into the ground after he completed a maneuver with another plane as part of the T-28 Warbird Aerobatic Formation Demonstration Team at the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge air show, according to a story in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

Before the recent tragedy in Reno, there had been 17 deaths of pilots at the event’s air races since they were first held in 1964, according to a story in The Reno Journal-Gazette. The latest incident was “the worst accident in the history of the 48-year-old event,” the paper reported.

The Reno accident marked the first time in 60 years of air shows and races that any spectators have been killed in the U.S., according to the AP story. In comparison, during the last 47 years, 20 racing, stunt or demonstration pilots have died in crashes at such events.

Meanwhile, many of the affected individuals and families who lost loved ones or suffered serious injuries in the Reno crash will likely file lawsuits for damages.

Both crashes are now being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which will take up to a year in each case to determine what happened.

The tragedies underscore the dangers that can exist at spectator events.

The pilots of planes in air shows accept the risks of their stunts while flying in the events, but what about the crowds of people who come to observe?

The last time someone on the ground was killed at a show was 60 years ago, in September, 1951, according to a story in The Orlando Sentinel. That was before the Federal Aviation Administration was created and before the agency eventually created safety rules for air shows and crowd safety, according to the story. In the 1951 incident “a military pilot arriving at a show began doing some impromptu aerobatics when his plane crashed into the grandstands, killing 20 people,” the story reported. “In the aftermath, federal regulators began restricting how close air-show pilots can fly to a crowd — particularly during aerobatic maneuvers, when things are most likely to go wrong. The rules now require large buffers above and away from spectators for planes performing stunts.”

Even more important, FAA regulations now “forbid the pilot to perform stunts while the nose of the aircraft is pointed at spectators. Instead, the plane must be parallel to the crowd,” according to the story.

The Reno and Martinsburg crashes have not been the only such incidents this year, according to The (Martinsburg) Journal-News. ”So far in 2011, the NTSB said there have been 10 air show accidents, resulting in 14 fatalities, 53 serious injuries and two minor injuries total,” the paper reported.

So what does this all mean for the spectators who go to such events?

What if you or someone you love is seriously injured at such an event? What are your legal rights?

Who is responsible when people are killed or injured in such incidents, even as remote as they can be?

All of these things depend, of course.

If inadequate safety precautions are taken at the facility where the event is held, then the promoters can potentially be held liable. If the safety barrier between the crowd and the planes and participants isn’t substantial enough, then liability can potentially be found. Certainly the event promoters have liability insurance for such an event, so ultimately the insurance carrier could have to pay damages. The question in that case, however, is just how much insurance coverage does the event have to pay injured parties?

If the planes are found to be in poor mechanical condition or if there is a maintenance issue that could have contributed to the crash, then potential liability could be found there. That’s what is being investigated in the Reno crash that killed 10 spectators – whether a critical part that is believed to have come off a wing in flight contributed to the crash. If this is the case, and that part was installed improperly by an aircraft maintenance business, then that business could be held liable in the crash.

These are the kinds of factors that a skilled and knowledgeable attorney here at MyPhillyLawyer will look at during an investigation into a potential lawsuit in such a case.

And these are the kinds of legal issues that you want the answers to if you or someone you love is injured in an accident or incident in a public venue such as an air show, air race or other racing or demonstration event.

Yes, there are inherent risks in everything we do in life, but knowing your rights and being aware of the responsibilities of others can make us safer and more prepared in dealing with potential legal situations that are thrust upon us through the negligence of others each day.

When Winning Matters Most, call MyPhillyLawyer.