16th September 2011
At approximately 4:30pm local time at the Reno Air Races, the P-51 Galloping Ghost abruptly pitched upwards, then rolled to the right inverted and pitched downward towards the main grandstands impacting the box seat area in front of the grandstands. The box seats were occupied by race fans. Seven people were killed at the scene including the veteran air race pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74 of Ocala Florida. Four others have died at the hospital from their injuries.
The pitch up occurred in the vicinity of the racing course abeam the pits, just before home pylon. Photos and video show the left side elevator trim tab breaking loose and falling off during the pitch up. It is not totally clear when the trim tab began to break loose.
This type of pitch-up has happened before inducing a climb with an estimated 10g force. This is enough force to render a pilot unconscious. There are photos that seem to confirm the theory that the pilot was unconscious during the pitch-up and crash. The impact was extremely violent throwing debris out on to the ramp to the north and east of the box seating. The impact appears to have been in the front few rows of the box seats directly impacting spectators.
The air races were canceled for 2011. After the NTSB findings are final, there will most likely be recommendations to improve fan safety at the races.
Thank you to all those who helped at the scene of this tragedy. Our condolences to all friends, crew and family members of the victims of this horrific crash.
About the elevator trim tab:
As the speeds of the air racers increase, more nose down pressure is needed on the control stick to keep the aircraft in level flight and not climbing. To relieve the pressure on the stick, aircraft are equipped with trim tabs (mini control surfaces hinged to the larger control surface) that move into the airflow on the control surface deflecting it thus relieving pressure inside the cockpit. For the elevator to be trimmed nose down, the elevator trim tab is moved up into the airflow forcing the elevator down, thus forcing the nose down.
Some racers have been modified so they can fly at faster speeds than normal requiring little or no trim. If there have been no modifications, the faster you go, the more nose down trim you will need to relieve some of the stick pressure. The force on a deflected trim tab can cause a failure in the connection to the control surface or a failure of the trim tab itself. If the elevator trim tab that is exerting down-trim on an air racer moving at over 450 mph fails, breaks or falls off, it will cause an abrupt pitch-up that the pilot will not be able to stop or control. The resulting climb has been estimated to exceed 10gs. This high g-load will render the pilot unconscious. If the aircraft flies straight during the climb, the pilot will regain consciousness and hopefully have the altitude to regain control of the aircraft.
It has happened before. In 1998 Bob Hannah flying Voodoo went unconscious during such a pitch up after the left-side trim tab broke loose. Voodoo climbed straight enough that when Bob was able to come to and control the aircraft he had sufficient altitude to land safely. Certainly the air racers will look at this behavior very closely and determine what action is needed to keep elevator trim tabs intact during high speed air racing by either reinforcement or modifications for little or no trim needed at speed.
All of us involved with the sport know the dangers and accept them. That does not make losing a loved one any easier, it is just the facts of the dangerous sport that we love. Is the life of a pilot any less important than the life of a fan? Of course not. The races have continued after losing pilots in crashes. The pilots, crews and support personnel do know the risks and dangers involved - and we accept it. Are the spectators also aware and accept this risk? Debates and discussions about this and how to keep a like tragedy from ever happening again will begin in the coming months.
Truthfully, that aircraft could have impacted anywhere. It is a miracle that the number of victims was not much higher. The aircraft could have hit the grandstands or out in the middle of the desert. It was (apparently) not controlled at the time of the crash. There is no way a veteran pro pilot like Leeward would have ever allowed the aircraft to impact others or even crash in the vicinity of people.
Race crews will learn from this and inspect every aspect of their racer to insure it is safer than ever before - the only good to come from such a tragedy. Some say this is end of the Reno Air Races. We do not believe so and certainly hope not. There will be more about this later.
All those that perished left family and friends behind. They also had touching stories about why they were at Reno. Some were veteran fans, some first-timers, some with a dream, some with a purpose. In their memory alone, the races should continue.