Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Reno Accident

Meticulous probing of wreckage led investigators to some tiny screws

The chances are minimal that most pilots will ever find themselves in the same circumstances as did James "Jimmy" Leeward on September 16, 2011. Comparatively few fly airplanes like Leeward's modified North American P-51 Mustang, The Galloping Ghost. Not too many pilots enter the Reno Air Races, and flying at 445 knots close to the ground likely isn't something you'll be doing at your local airport anytime soon.

Leeward was no aviation novice. He soloed in a North American military trainer at age 14, flew charters in a Beech 18 when he was 18, and began air racing while still in college. In 1976, he flew the P-51D Mustang he owned at the time in the Reno Air Races. He was a stunt pilot in several movies, including Smokey And The Bandit Part 3 and The Tuskegee Airmen.

At the time of the accident, Leeward was 74 years old and held a commercial pilot certificate for airplane single-engine land, single-engine sea, multi-engine land, instrument airplane, rotorcraft-helicopter and glider. He held type ratings for many airplanes and was authorized to fly a variety of experimental aircraft. His second-class medical certificate had no limitations. According to his entry form for the 2011 air races, he had more than 13,200 flight hours with more than 2,700 hours in P-51D airplanes.

It was at about 4:25 p.m., when the single-seat experimental P-51D crashed into the spectator-box seating area following a loss of control during the National Championship Air Races at Reno/Stead Airport. Leeward and 10 people on the ground sustained fatal injuries. At least 64 people on the ground were injured, with 16 classified as serious injuries. The airplane fragmented when it hit the pavement. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. The plane had been airborne for about 10 minutes before the accident.

The accident airplane was in third place during the third lap of the six-lap race, trailing the second-place airplane (Voodoo, another experimental P-51D) by about 4.5 seconds and the lead airplane (Strega, also an experimental P-51D) by about 8.8 seconds. The accident airplane was traveling about 445 knots as it passed pylon 8 and experienced a left-roll upset and high pitch-up with extensive G loading. Investigators were able to use photographs, video recordings and telemetry data to examine the accident sequence in detail. During the upset, in less than one second, the airplane rolled from its established left-bank turn of approximately 73 degrees to a steeper left bank of approximately 93 degrees. The vertical acceleration reached about 11 Gs at that time. After the left roll upset, the airplane entered a right-rolling climb maneuver. During the rolling and climbing maneuver, the vertical acceleration peaked at 17.3 Gs. The left elevator trim tab link assembly had buckled and fractured in bending overload. A section of the left elevator trim tab separated in flight. Then, the airplane descended in a helical flight path until it struck the ground.

The Safety Board determined that the rapid build-up of G forces and the high-G level, meant that the pilot's time of useful consciousness once things began to unravel was likely less than one second. During the brief interval before losing consciousness, the pilot's physical performance would have been limited. The increased loads on his body would have made movement of his arms and legs difficult, and the decreased blood flow to his brain would have inhibited both thinking and reflex processes. As a result, the pilot soon became completely incapacitated. Photographic evidence showed the pilot was slumped in the cockpit during the aircraft's climb. The NTSB concluded that the airplane's continued climb and helical descent occurred without his control. The pilot's toxicological information and medical history revealed no evidence of drug or alcohol use or physical conditions that would have adversely affected his performance.

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