What went wrong: Reno Air Race crash

  • Did this notch cause a tragedy? Photos taken just before the accident show that an elevator trim tab is missing from the aircraft. At high speeds, the trim tab can vibrate violently and break; without it, the aircraft could lose control. Image credit: AP/Wide World Photos
  • Movie stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, the 74-year-old who flew The Galloping Ghost, was a favourite at the venerable air races at Reno.
  • FAA may change its air-race requirements.
Date:27 February 2012 Tags:, , ,

After a mid-air malfunction led to multiple fatalities, PM explores whether safety changes can save air racing. By Jeff Wise

The crowd gasps as the wayward air-race plane banks ominously toward the viewing stands. Moments later, the 6-ton World War II P-51D fighter plummets to the ground, killing 10 spectators and pilot Jimmy Leeward, and injuring 74. The crash on 16 September last year at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, threw the future of the 47-year-old competition into question.

Leeward’s heavily modified P-51, The Galloping Ghost, failed while travelling at about 800 km/h – far faster than it was originally designed to go. The aircraft’s nose suddenly pitched upward, the motion causing a spike in G-forces. This could have been enough to cause Leeward to black out; he is not visible in the cockpit in the video of the incident. The aircraft then rolled and plunged towards the ground at full power.

Photos and video of the tragedy also indicate a possible cause: part of the tail called an elevator trim tab, which helps stabilise the aircraft, is missing. If that part broke off, it could have caused the plane to lurch into a vertical climb.

No matter the cause, the air races at Reno are now facing scrutiny. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that, with the planes so close, there’s a possibility of danger,” says Andy Chiavetta, a mechanic on one of the planes competing that day. “In the pits, we all know that there’s risk, and so do 95 per cent of the people in the stands. It’s a part of racing.”

Saving Reno
Air races thrive on viewers watching aircraft flying nearby at hundreds of kilometres per hour. Finding the balance between entertainment and risk will be vital to continuing the air races at Reno.

Are FAA standards sufficient?
The FAA mandates that spectators watching high-speed manoeuvres be set back from the race line by at least 450 m. That distance is based on scatter diagrams that calculate where debris would land if pieces came off a plane on the course. But no FAA precaution takes into account what occurred at Reno, an aircraft leaving the course intact and flying into the crowd, nearly 600 m away.

After the US National Transportation Safety Board issues its report on The Galloping Ghost crash later this year, the FAA may change its air-race requirements. But every possible fix has a drawback – after all, fans come to watch aircraft roar past at close range.

Move the viewing stands to inside the course.
Pro: Debris shed from damaged planes would tend to fly away from the crowd, not into it.

Con: Pilots in planes with mechanical problems would have to fly over the crowd to reach the runway.

Lengthen the straightaway.
Pro: Would move spectators farther from the zones near turns, the area with the greatest lethal potential.

Con: There’s not much room at Reno; the course is constrained by mountains and residential development.

Move the viewing stands back from the course.
Pro: This is the most likely solution, as this distance is the key parameter that the FAA sets for air-race and air-show spectator safety.

Con: Putting more distance between fans and the action risks diluting the excitement.

Between the start of the Reno air races in 1964 and 2010, 19 people lost their lives. Last year’s crash was the first that hurt or killed spectators. Here are some notable fatalities:

1972 HE Thomas crashes a home-built biplane; the NTSB never determines the cause.

1975 Pilot MD Washburn dies after his wing clips a pylon and he crashes. About 15 minutes later, wing walker Gordon McCollom is killed when his head hits the ground during a stunt.

1994 Bill Speer, flying a P-51D, crashes while pulling off the racecourse after his windscreen is obscured by oil leaking from the propeller. Six days later, another pilot dies after a collision at the start of a race.

1999 The tail of a P-51R disintegrates while in flight, killing pilot Gary Levitz and damaging a house. No one on the ground is injured.

2002 Tommy Rose crashes his home-built airplane into the ground at over 600 km/h. The NTSB states that the aircraft’s horizontal stabilisers failed due to excessive speed.

Video: Click Reno Air Race crash – 16 September 2011 to watch a dramatic video of the 2011 Reno plane crash.