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Fate of Reno air races to be announced Wednesday

The Reno Air Racing Association plans to announce Wednesday the future of the National Championship Air Races.

Association President Mike Houghton scheduled a news conference to announce whether they'll continue the event that came to an abrupt halt Sept. 16 with the crash that killed 11 people and injured more than 70 at Reno-Stead Airport.

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The crash has led to calls that officials consider ending the event, the only one of its kind in the United States, and the National Transportation Safety Board has scheduled a hearing Jan. 10 to examine the safety of air shows and air races in general.

The Reno group's directors say in a letter on their website they are "committed to preserving this unique and historic aviation event" that began four decades ago. They have said if the races can't be staged, they hope to host an air show or memorial for the victims.

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"While we have many challenges to overcome and much work to do, we are optimistic and hopeful that we will again take to the Sierra skies in the near future," said the letter dated Dec. 28.

Among other challenges, the board must secure licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration and Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. They also have to deal with $1 million in losses caused by cancellation of the 2011 event after the crash as well as insurance costs. Two lawsuits have been filed over the crash so far.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said organizers must develop a comprehensive plan each year that includes requirements for pilot and aircraft qualifications, and a detailed course layout.

The 2011 races turned deadly when veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., lost control of his World War II-era P-51 Mustang and crashed into the crowd. It was the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno.

Twenty pilots, including Leeward, have died in that time, race officials said. Three pilots died while racing in the 2007 competition and another was killed during a practice race the next year.

Past deaths have led to on-again-off-again calls for better safety at the races over the years, but it has grown into a major tourist attraction in Reno. Local officials said the races generate $80 million for the local economy during the five-day event held every September.

During the competition, planes fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

Reno has the world's only multi-class air races, with six classes of aircraft competing, said Don Berliner of Alexandria, Va., president of the Society of Air Racing Historians. Air races elsewhere involve only a single class of aircraft, he said.

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Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is among the longtime fans who said they hope the races continue in Reno but only if they can assure the safety of spectators.

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