Tragedy at reno.

What it was like in the pits that day

Linda Shiner


Within minutes of the crash at the national air races on Friday , which took pilot Jimmy Leeward’s life, killed ten spectators, and injured dozens more, the word in the Reno pits was “ trim tab .” Some people said they had seen something depart the aft end of the Galloping Ghost, Leeward’s intensely modified Mustang, on its third lap, just after it banked around the last pylon and headed down the east-west straightaway that runs in front of the stands. NTSB investigators appear to have recovered the part—it would have landed far from the crater where the rest of the airplane disintegrated on impact. Some people remembered that it had been the loss of a trim tab that caused a fatal crash at the races in 1999, when Gary Levitz lost control of his Mustang Miss Ashley II . Some mentioned Voodoo Chile in ’98. Pilot Bob Hannah blacked out after the loss of an elevator trim tab pitched his Mustang up. Hannah regained consciousness and landed safely.

In the pits Friday afternoon, small groups formed, dispersed, and re-formed, trying to make sense of what had just happened. If it had been a trim tab, did Jimmy have a warning? Is that why we saw him first depart the course in a gradual climb to the north? Was he wrestling for control before we saw that sickening lurch upward? We knew right away from the violence of the pitch-up that control forces were flying the airplane, not the pilot. Under the force of the Gs, Jimmy would have lost consciousness, the pilots among us said. But what of the path the airplane followed up over the grandstands, then backward over the top of the climb and down toward the field? Who or what was in charge of that? Some of us, not pilots, wondered if Jimmy was trying to get the airplane back toward the infield, away from the fans. How he spent the last few seconds in the cockpit is probably not something the NTSB will find.

A couple of hours before Leeward climbed into the Ghost for the last time, Air & Space photo editor Caroline Sheen and I had hopped a ride on his golf cart. “Wanna see the airplane?” he had shouted. He was proud of it. Proud of its history and certain of its potential. Riding along, he told us how the Ghost got its name: In the 1940s when owners Bruce Raymond and Steve Beville raced it at the nationals in Cleveland, they named it in honor of running back Red Grange. Grange was a national celebrity, famous for slipping though tacklers as though he were invisible, which earned him the nickname “Galloping Ghost.” Back then the Ghost still looked like a P-51. But Leeward and his team removed its signature air scoop from the fuselage, and substituted a cooling system that bathed the radiators in an anti-detonation fluid. The system had been developed by Reno legend Pete Law, a thermodynamicist who surmised, as we all stood looking toward the site of impact and not seeing fire or smoke, that the fluid had doused any flame. He told us that a friend who had been standing a hundred feet away had been splashed by the stuff.

In the few minutes we talked to Leeward, he told us he was very happy with the way the Ghost was running. He was eager to race, and thought he could move up in the ranks during Friday’s qualifier. He was battling for third when things started to go bad. That night we pulled out the T-shirts he had given us. The words that had been so hopeful that day had turned ghastly. On the back, “The Galloping Ghost” Returns; on the front, Fear the Ghost .

There will be discussions in the coming weeks and months about whether the air races should continue, about whether, despite the racing association’s famously extreme emphasis on safety, airplanes flying at nearly 500 mph only 50 feet off the ground within several hundred feet of the fans can ever be safe. Since a spectator had not been injured in the 47 years that airplanes have raced at Reno, we had all forgotten the “at-your-own-risk” nature of attendance printed on every admission ticket.

What do you think?  What will happen to air racing in this country, and what should happen?

Linda Shiner is the editor of Air&Space .

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Photo Suggests Pilot in Deadly Reno Air Crash Had Broken Seat, Aviation Mechanic Says

New Theory on Cause of Deadly Nevada Air Race Crash

New Theory on Cause of Deadly Nevada Air Race Crash

NTSB investigating possible causes for accident in Reno

A newly released photograph of the deadly Nevada air racing disaster suggests the pilot in the crash may have become dislodged in the cockpit as a result of a broken seat, an aviation mechanic tells Fox News.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused a WWII-era P-51 Mustang fighter plane -- named the Galloping Ghost -- to crash in Reno during Friday’s race, killing 10 people and injuring 70 others as it disintegrated into a cloud of dust and debris.

NTSB officials are now examining photos taken before and after the crash, including a photo in which the pilot is not visible from inside the cockpit.

Aviation mechanic J.R. Walker told Fox News that the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, would have been seen in the photo even if he had passed out and was slumped in his seat.

Walker, who has worked on similar planes, suggested in an interview that Leeward’s seat may have slipped back, causing him to lose control of the plane.

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  • 11th Person Dies from Plane Crash at Reno Air Race

A key focus of the investigation is also the tail of the high-performance aircraft, which some photos seem to show lost a part before the crash.

The plane crashed at the edge of the crowd, narrowly missing the grandstand where thousands more people were watching. Spectators were sprayed with aviation fuel, but the plane did not explode, and its fuel did not catch fire.

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what caused the galloping ghost to crash

Reno air races fans struggle with horrors of crash

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Reporting from Reno

The noise was “hellish,” a “big crunch,” followed by stunned silence and then screams. The smell was acrid, spilled aviation fuel and burnt oil. And the sight was enough to keep Gerald Lent awake for more than 24 hours:

The massive plane falling from the sky directly toward him. The cloud of shattered tarmac and razor-sharp shrapnel. The body parts. The first responders. The dazed survivors at a storied air show that careened from festive to deadly in seconds.

Photos: Reno air-show crash kills 9

On what should have been Day 4 of the National Championship Air Races in Reno, federal investigators arrived Saturday to start piecing together what brought the Galloping Ghost — a World War II plane with a flashy pilot in a much-anticipated race — to earth in violent fashion. The crash killed seven people on the tarmac, including the pilot, and two more died later at the hospital. Dozens were wounded.

Before Friday’s disaster, the event had claimed the lives of 19 pilots since 1972, but never a spectator. As the death toll from the Friday crash rose and suspicion fell on a missing piece from the plane’s tail, survivors grappled with opposing emotions. Many worried about the future of a beloved aviation event, even as they were haunted by images of graphic horror they likened to a battlefield or a terrorist attack.

“People were looking for relatives and their personal goods,” Lent, a retired optometrist, recounted Saturday, still sounding shocked. “These guys were trying to pick up this leg. Legs are heavy. They tried to put it on a gurney. They couldn’t. This gal in the bleacher was … screaming about a foot, but her feet were OK. We didn’t see the foot until later. It was in the bleachers.”

Friday at Reno-Stead Airport, where the suburbs give way to sagebrush-covered hills, started calm and festive. American flags fluttered atop grandstands. Vendors pitched kettle corn and lemonade. Banners touted downtown casinos where aviation buffs could place bets on the races.

Early in the day, Joshua Cross, an 18-year-old from Pomona, bought a red T-shirt with a picture of the plane he was most excited to see: the Galloping Ghost. The college freshman’s father is a private pilot, and he’s been coming to the Reno races since 2007. He especially loves the souped-up vintage planes.

“You see the planes race, and you love them,” he said.

At last year’s races, he recounted, the Galloping Ghost, piloted by the colorful Jimmy Leeward, tore past the competition in its first race and walloped the rest of the field in its second. It was supposed to compete against some of the event’s fastest aircraft in its third, but weather got in the way, and the race was canceled. This year, Cross was rooting for the Galloping Ghost to soar past Strega, a repeat event winner.

“Now I can’t believe that plane almost killed me,” he said Saturday.

During Friday’s race, Strega was in the lead, Cross recalled. Voodoo was second. The Galloping Ghost, or plane No. 177, was next. The planes whipped around a turn and then started blasting down a straightaway at speeds of at least 400 mph. Suddenly, the Galloping Ghost pulled up.

Pilots normally pull up when they’re in trouble, flying skyward and away from the competition. The higher the altitude, the more options that pilots have for maneuvering, but they usually do it in a much smoother manner than Leeward did, said Gerald DeRego, a retired Air Force pilot, who was sitting in the box seats Friday.

The 63-year-old from Penn Valley, Calif., has been coming to the Reno races for the last 15 years, and he knew something was terribly wrong. The Ghost reached its apex and started to roll. To the untrained eye, the roll resembled an aerobatic move called a Split S. But to DeRego, the pilot had lost “elevator authority” and therefore control of the plane.

“As soon as he rolled, I knew he was going to hit the crowd somewhere,” he said. “Clearly at that point there was no possible way he was going to survive that.”

DeRego’s mind raced. “I could see the airplane coming. He was in a steep dive. I thought, ‘Is he going to hit before us, on us or after us?’” He got up to run with the others around him, knocking down chairs in their path.

As the nose came down at a steep angle, the plane rotated a bit, enough to likely spare a number of onlookers, he said. But it still slammed into an area about 100 to 150 feet away from DeRego. The shock wave knocked DeRego down. He landed on another spectator. And then, he said, he started crawling, “like a lizard on a hot rock.”

Optometrist Lent, 72, was watching the race from the bleachers behind the box seats, about 10 feet above the ground. When the plane headed his way, he jumped off the bleachers, twisting an ankle. When he looked up, he said, he saw a big black cloud, and debris was flying into the bleachers “like bullets over your head.”

Metal littered the tarmac for a quarter-mile, he said, and the box seats “were wiped out.” People were lying “all over the place — I mean all over the place.” It looked like a bomb had exploded.

“I saw a lot of ladies sitting down bleeding, holes in their head and legs and stomach,” Lent recounted Saturday. “A guy laying on his belly had a cut down his back 3 feet long. It just hit my mind: ‘Someone’s got to close that wound’.... I sort of walked it off — had to walk it off in a daze.”

Tim Linville, who works for a credit union and attended the race with his daughters, said he was struck by the sounds, and he described them Saturday as if the disaster were happening all over again — the faltering plane, the growing dread, the crash, the quick response of emergency workers.

“You hear excitement,” said a rattled Linville. “Then you kind of hear almost like a rising series of screams. Then you hear dead silence. Then you hear crying.... Then you start hearing the first responders and seeing the people.”

About two dozen emergency workers were already on standby as part of the event’s normal safety precautions when the Galloping Ghost hit the ground. There were four ambulances, four nurses, an emergency doctor and four paramedics on all-terrain vehicles that let them zip quickly to accident sites.

The crash happened at 4:20 p.m. and was declared a “mass casualty incident” at 4:26 p.m., which brought a parade of more than a dozen additional ambulances rushing to the scene. All of the injured were en route to local hospitals within 62 minutes of when the plane went down, authorities said.

Reno Mayor Bob Cashell praised emergency personnel for a quick response, saying: “If you look at some of those videos, you’ll see the emergency vehicles rolling in while the dust was still in the air.”

More than half of the casualties were taken to Renown Regional Medical Center, where a line of gurneys and medical staff awaited them outside. By around 9 p.m., Renown’s emergency room was empty, with all patients in rooms or in surgery. At the time, authorities reported that three people had died and more than 50 were injured.

On Saturday, however, things were looking grimmer. Reno Deputy Police Chief Dave Evans told reporters at a midday news conference that the death toll had risen to nine — seven on the tarmac, including pilot Leeward, and two at Renown. Nearly 70 had been treated at local hospitals. Asked whether there were still people missing, he said: “We’re still working on that.”

And Cross, the college student, spent the day haunted. He had dreamed Friday night that he was piloting the Galloping Ghost. He tried to steer the big plane away from the grandstands. And then he woke up.

“I will never get it out of my head,” he said. “It will be burned in my memory until the day I die.”

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Tony Barboza contributed to this report from Reno .

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what caused the galloping ghost to crash

Maria L. La Ganga is city editor for the Los Angeles Times. She has covered six presidential elections and served as bureau chief in San Francisco and Seattle.

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Reno, Nevada Air Race Crash: 9 Dead, More Than 50 Hurt

Mechanical failure may have caused the crash.

Sept. 17, 2011— -- At least nine people are dead and more than 50 people were injured after a World War II-era fighter plane plunged into the spectators at an air race in Reno, Nevada.

The death count includes those killed on the tarmac and the pilot.

Officials at the National Championship Air Race said a mechanical failure may have caused the P-51 Mustang Galloping Ghost piloted by Jimmy Leeward to plummet out of the sky Friday afternoon and crash into the viewer grandstands.

Reno Air Races president Mike Houghton said the plane was on course before the accident occurred.

"Speculation has gone on a different number of different areas to what took place. Different people see different things. But there appear to be some air-flight problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control," Houghton said.

Leeward, 74, a real estate developer from Ocala, Fla. was killed in the crash.

Houghton described Leeward as "a very experienced and talented and qualified pilot" whose "medical records and everything are up-to-date, spot-on."

At least 56 people were taken to local hospitals, including 15 in critical condition and another 13 were listed in serious condition.

Authorities said it is possible the number of injuries may be even higher because some people left for the hospital in private vehicles.

Connie Camit had just left the grandstand for a refreshment stand with two of her children, 14 and 5, ABC News Radio reported.

"Just as we were standing there, we heard this big crash, turned around and I seen airplane pieces, parts flying everywhere," she said. "We just heard everybody screaming, sirens. It was just chaos, complete chaos."

Eyewitness Gerald Lent was on the scene and described the moments before the crash.

"It pulled straight up and did an upside down roll. It looked like no one was flying the plane. It game straight down toward the grandstand," Lent said.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller flew to Reno after the accident and said he wants to be part of investigations into the safety of the event.

"I do not want to see this event here in northern Nevada come to an end. I think it has history, I think people have enjoyed it over the years," he said. "But how do you get over, how do you get over a tragic event like this? And that's what's going to be decided in the next six months."

Federal investigators arrived at the scene of the crash today. An official cause of the crash has not been determined.

"We extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those that lost their lives or were injured in this accident," National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind said in a taped message.

Air race officials have canceled the rest of remaining events for the weekend.

"The National Championship extends their deepest sympathies and condolences to all of the families involved in today's tragic accident. The Air Races are truly one big family and our thoughts are with all of our aviation family members, immediate and extended," air race officials said in a statement.

ABC News' David Wright, Matt Hosford and Jacob Beckman, ABC News Radio and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Reno Crash Docket: Questions About Trim Tab Before Accident

Ntsb investigators focused on trim tab..

what caused the galloping ghost to crash

** The highly modified P-51 Galloping Ghost before the Reno crash last September.**

The NTSB this week opened the accident docket for the Reno crash that rocked the nation last September, providing the public further insight into what caused the highly modified P-51 known as Galloping Ghost to crash into a crowd of spectators at the show, killing 11 and injuring more than 60.

Among the more than 900 pages of evidence and analysis listed in the docket is a recent aircraft performance report that cites the likelihood that loose screws and fatigue in the trim tab initially triggered the crash.

According to the report, tech inspectors squawked the trim tab attach for short screws on the right side, which the crew later said was simply a cross threaded screw. Regardless, the trim tab that would fail was on the other side, though crewmembers never inspected it pre-race as it had not been the subject of a squawk.

The possibly insecure nature of the trim tab, combined with a wake encounter, could have resulted in flutter that may have overloaded the Galloping Ghost ‘s trim tab, causing it to separate from the aircraft, investigators say.

A video captured by a witness at the scene shows the trim tab falling to the ground directly before the airplane nose-dived into the VIP area in front of the bleachers. Investigators say the motion of the P-51 directly before the crash was consistent with a trim tab failure.

In its report, the NTSB noted that the Galloping Ghost ‘s speed and vertical loading was similar to that of other racing P-51s, and that “there was no indication that an increase in static aerodynamic forces overloaded to cause the failure of the left trim tab control rod.”

Before the race, the crew of Galloping Ghost seemed confident that the airplane was dialed in.

Crewmember Rick Shanholtzer recalled that Leeward seemed well prepared for the race.

“This year everything was going smooth, not rushed,” he told NTSB investigators last November. “Jimmy was happy with the way things were working. The only concerns Jimmy had was that he had crew install an altimeter on Wednesday to make sure he didn’t bust any altitudes. Jimmy seemed real relaxed, joking around. No health issues that he knew of. [Leeward] took [the] racing serious.”

The information contained in the docket is purely factual and contains no conclusive analysis. The NTSB is expected to release a final report on the probable cause of the Reno crash by the end of this month.

Despite increased financial obligations and safety changes, the Reno Air Races are slated to take place again this year, Sept.12 -16.

Bethany Whitfield

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Plane in Reno crash had 'radical' changes to compete

The World War II-era plane that plummeted into an air-race crowd like a missile bore little resemblance to its original self. It was rebuilt for speed, if not for stability.

The 65-year-old "Galloping Ghost" underwent years of massive overhauls that took a full 10 feet off its wingspan. The ailerons — the back edges of the main wings used to control balance — were cut from about 60 inches to 32.

Pilot Jimmy Leeward had said the changes made the P-51 Mustang faster and more maneuverable, but in the months before Friday's crash even he wasn't certain exactly how it would perform.

"I know it'll do the speed," he said in a podcast uploaded to YouTube in June. "The systems aren't proven yet. We think they're going to be OK."

On Monday, the death toll from the crash rose to 10, a figure that includes Leeward.

Investigators don't yet know what caused the plane to pitch sharply into the crowd at the National Championship Air Races in Reno. They have focused on the "elevator trim tab" — a piece of the tail that helps the aircraft maintain lift and appeared to break off before the crash. While investigators did not identify the items, the National Transportation Safety Board released a photo late Sunday of two board officials at the crash site with items they said were part of the investigation.

Over the coming days, the NTSB will likely study footage that came from the Galloping Ghost's onboard, outward facing camera. The camera tracked the plane's engine, position and other data, and transmitted it to the racing team on the ground, the Los Angeles Times reported. Memory cards that may have come from the plane were also found at the scene.

'The Big League' In the highly competitive, bravado-filled world of air racing, pilots go for broke on the ground and in the sky, hitting speeds of 500 mph. Leeward is the 20th pilot to die at the air races since they began 47 years ago, but Friday's crash was the first in which spectators were killed.

"Pilots are a special breed of confident, intelligent, driven perfectionists," said Ken Quick, a commercial airline pilot and a crew member for one of the teams that raced Friday. "They know what they do is dangerous and demanding, and they eagerly embrace both."

Leeward's own website alludes to the dangers — and bragging rights.

"These guys are always on the edge knowing one wrong move, in one split second, could mean the end," the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team website says. "NASCAR at 200 mph? Indy at 230 mph? Top Fuel at 300 mph? Mere Childs play. Welcome to the Big League."

Leeward had said the plane underwent several years of modifications before Friday's race, including lopping five feet off each wing, but he hadn't revealed many of the specifics. In the podcast, he called some of the changes "extremely radical," compared some to systems on the space shuttle and explained that he had increased the plane's speed capabilities to be more like those of a modern fighter jet.

"To control the airplane in the wind, and in different circumstances if anything happens, you need those types of speeds. You need jet speeds," he said.

what caused the galloping ghost to crash

Leeward was rounding a bend at dizzying speeds Friday when his plane took an oddly upward pitch, narrowly missing the packed grandstand. It then twirled just a few hundred feet off the ground and nose-dived into a section of VIP box seats, blasting out a 3-foot-deep, 8-foot-wide crater in a hail of metal, chairs and body parts.

Like 'sprinkled Legos' Noah Joraanstad was blown off his feet as he tried to run away. Shrapnel hit his back, and he was covered in aviation fuel that burned his skin as spectators tried to wash it off.

From his bed Sunday at Northern Nevada Medical Center, where nine stitches were put in his head, Joraanstad said that when he looked back at the wreck, the plane was just gone.

"The biggest pieces I could see, it looked like just someone sprinkled Legos in every direction," said the 25-year-old, a commercial pilot from Alaska.

Officials said 69 people were treated at hospitals, including 36 who have been released. Six remained in critical condition Sunday.

Four of the spectators killed have been identified so far: George Hewitt, 60, and Wendy Hewitt, 57, a married couple from Fort Mojave, Ariz.; Greg Morcom of Washington state; and Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Reno air race crash

Slideshow    12 photos

Reno air race crash.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said officials thoroughly vet all aircraft modifications before the planes are allowed to race. Reno Air Race Association technical experts also examine them to ensure they are air-worthy.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said his agency would look into the oversight of modifications to Leeward's plane as part of its investigation.

"We're not saying they did something right or wrong in this accident," Williams said. "We look at all angles in every accident investigation we do."

'No time to correct' Pilot Ray Sherwood of Placerville, Calif., who raced at Reno from 1986 to 2005, said he's convinced that the crash was caused by modifications leading the trim tab to snap off. He said the same problem caused a modified P-51 Mustang to plunge into a neighborhood during the races in 1999, killing veteran pilot Gary Levitz.

Aircraft experts said losing the part could have forced Leeward to yank the plane up too fast, possibly overcorrecting and stalling, meaning the engines would be running but air breaks up over the wings, causing it to lose lift. He probably would have been able to pull out of it safely if he hadn't been at low altitude, they said.

"Assuming the aircraft had no other problems, and assuming the pilot had no problems, if he had enough altitude, you can easily get out of that no big deal ... Matter of fact, the P-51 was designed for that," said Ken Liano, a structural engineer and aircraft consultant. "But that's one of the problems with low-altitude flying: There's no time to correct."

Pilots modify their old P-51s to compete, but the alterations put additional stress on the aircraft, Sherwood said.

"If they are going to go as fast as they can, they have to modify the plane," he said.

Pilots were competing for a total of about $1 million in prize money, but Sherwood said the sport is really about the thrill. He said a P-51 like Leeward's would cost about $2.5 million.

"You can't make any money racing airplanes. It's too expensive to buy and maintain them," Sherwood said. "You do it for the love of the sport."

Leeward, 74, was a veteran racer who flew in more than 120 events and served as a Hollywood stunt pilot for movies including "Amelia" and "The Tuskegee Airmen." He has been described as a passionate pilot, a stickler for safety and an aggressive competitor.

In the June podcast, he chided a competitor to come take him on.

"I've got a standing $10,000 offer ... if he would come back, get in the airplane and fly it in the race. I'll pay him $10,000 cash on the table before he takes off just to get him in that race because when I beat that airplane, I want him in that seat," Leeward said.

Leeward's plane had a minor crash at the air races almost exactly 41 years ago. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed and the plane crash-landed short of the runway.

The future of the races is unclear. Joraanstad, the injured spectator, said he doesn't want to see the races end "but when you see people go through that much pain and people die, I don't know if it's worth it.

"It's just kind of that last edge — frontier of flying — where there's no limits, really, with the amount of power you can put in your plane," he added. "It's kind of the ultimate rush just to even watch these guys do what they do."

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Reno Air Race Disaster

On September 16, 2011, a highly modified P-51D Mustang crashed near the spectator area at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, killing the pilot and ten spectators and injuring at least 70 other spectators. It is the third deadliest airshow disaster in United States history. The racecourse was eight and a half miles long, marked by 50-foot-tall pylons anchored in the Nevada desert. The box seats and grandstand were placed only along one portion of the racetrack. The crash happened in the afternoon, during visual meteorological conditions. The airplane was in third place when the accident occurred. As the pilot was on his third lap of six, the plane rolled left and pitched up and then nosedived, striking the ground in front of the box seats and grandstand. The plane was completely destroyed in the impact.

The pilot, Jimmy Leeward, held a commercial pilot certificate with single and multiple-engine ratings, an instrument aircraft certificate, a rotorcraft helicopter certificate, and a glider certificate. He was rated for many types of airplanes, including experimental aircraft. His application for the races listed his total flight time at over 13,000 hours, with 2,700 flight hours in “The Galloping Ghost.”

Leeward’s airplane, a World War II-era aircraft known as “The Galloping Ghost,” had been highly modified over the years to make it faster. Its original 37-foot wingspan had been reduced to 29 feet. The right trim tab on the airplane’s tail had been locked in position. Some of the changes were undocumented and had not been thoroughly tested.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the crash’s probable cause was a combination of worn aircraft bolts and speed. Several lock nuts on the left trim tab, a portion of the airplane’s tail, were extremely worn. Investigators estimated they might not have been replaced for 25 years or more. The worn nuts allowed screws to loosen at some time in the past. While this slight loosening did not present an immediate problem, when Leeward pushed the plane to the limits of its top speed, the trim tabs vibrated, causing the plane to pitch up drastically. It is estimated that this pitch occurred at 17 G forces, incapacitating Leeward. The plane then rolled and crashed into the box seating area. The NTSB recommended seven changes to future air races, including changing the course design and layout of racecourses further away from spectators, pre-race inspections, and airworthiness aircraft modifications.

Slack Davis Sanger represented multiple spectators and served as the lead counsel for all the spectator survivors and families in originating, negotiating, and implementing the Reno Air Disaster Compensation Fund. Insurance funds of $77 million were distributed to claimants in January 2013, less than eight months after the initial meeting with Ken Feinberg, Administrator of the Fund. The process resulted in the complete exhaustion of all the available insurance funds to cover the losses the spectators and their families sustained.

Mike Slack has been practicing law for over 36 years and has litigated hundreds of lawsuits. His experience as a licensed pilot and former NASA aerospace engineer gives him unique insight into aviation accident lawsuits.

Ladd Sanger is an attorney and a licensed pilot who focuses on aviation accidents, including product liability, product litigation, and representing clients who have been injured as a result of aviation accidents. His experience as a pilot helps him understand the technical aspects of aviation crashes.

Date of Incident

September 16, 2011

Location of Incident

Reno, Nevada

Media Coverage

NTSB: High speed, worn parts led to deadly Reno Air Races crash - CNN

Aftermath: The Reno Air Race Crash - Flying

Deadly crash at Reno air races - CBS News

How a Small Piece of Metal Caused the Reno Air Race Crash - Popular Mechanics

Represented By:

This information is intended to be used as a resource to gain a general understanding of a case's history and status. Every attempt is made to ensure that this information is timely and accurate. There may be a lag between when new information is available and when cases are updated on the website.

Litigation & Trial

The Law Blog of Plaintiff's Attorney Max Kennerly

Accountability After The National Championship Air Races Disaster

In the blink of an eye, Jimmy Leeward’s P-51 Galloping Ghost went from rounding the last turn at National Championship Air Races in Reno to sharply pitching upward, rolling over, and then diving straight down into box seats full of spectators. Strange as it is to say, there are reasons to be grateful — had his airplane hit the grandstands, there would have been hundreds, not dozens, of injuries.

Air shows are a big deal in America — attendance is around 17 million visitors to the 400 or so air shows each year , roughly around the same attendance as the NFL — and, apart from the causal attendees, there’s a sense of community around types of planes, types of shows, and locations. They know the history of the sport; the Ramstein disaster , for one, still lingers in the minds of many in the air show community, and the frequency of fatal and near-fatal crashes is not lost on anyone. The casualty numbers are lower, but they still look more like a major air disaster than a simple crash; Reno will likely take a similar place to Ramstein in the minds of the air show community, and may end the National Championship Air Races, at least in their current form.

As always, when a crash happens, the media attention shifts quickly to the National Transportation Safety Board’s “Go Team” investigation . Maybe it’s something about the allure of governmental rapid response teams, or maybe it’s the idea that, with an investigation and findings will come some sort of closure. The NTSB is a good organization with talented and dedicated personnel, and it’s no stretch to say that NTSB Aviation Accident Reports and other recommendations have saved countless lives, but one thing needs to be understood about the NTSB.

Coincidentally, a few hours before the crash I conducted the deposition of the former fleet operations manager for a company involved in a fatal maritime accident. The NTSB Marine Accident Report recommended that her company “review existing safety management program and develop improved means to ensure that your company’s safety and emergency procedures are understood and adhered to by employees in safety-critical positions.” The fleet operations manager argued that the NTSB’s finding that her company had at all contributed to the accident was merely “political.”

In one sense, she’s right: the NTSB’s findings are “political,” in that they are made by the government for the benefit of everyone, rather than made for accountability among those involved in the crash. The NTSB reviews accidents primarily for the purpose of making recommendations for the future and secondarily for determining fault. In contrast, civil litigation exists to determine who should pay for the losses arising from an injury, and thus cases are reviewed by the judicial system primarily for determining fault.

This difference in focus isn’t just a matter of word choice. There’s an entire field of ‘root cause analysis’ that assesses the way in which accidents and other failures are investigated. Its lessons have been applied to aircraft safety as well , including in the federal regulations governing military aircraft safety , which direct audits towards the cause , not just the symptom , of safety deficiencies.

That’s not to say the NTSB’s process is flawed or that their conclusions are wrong (although it’s always disturbing to me how the “party system” always gives the likely culpable parties a seat at the table but never gives any voice to the victims). It’s just important to understand that they answer a different question — what can we, as a government agency, recommend to prevent this in the future? — from the question asked in a lawsuit: who, if anyone, was responsible?

Tim OBrien Photo - P51 Loss Of Trim Tab

It wouldn’t be surprising if the flutter caused the trim tab to break off. (For those unfamiliar with flutter, Mike Danko dug up an old NASA video of trim tab flutter). That’s a known problem with P-51s; consider this report regarding the P-51 Voodoo Chile at the Reno National Championship Air Races just a couple years ago:

… Voodoo very abruptly pulled up; however, Hannah didn’t radio a distress call. … Steve Hinton flew over to take a look Voodoo. “You OK Bob?” called Hinton. “Yea, this thing just popped big time,” replied Hannah. What Hannah didn’t mention is that the g-load from the quick pull-up had caused him to black out. He finally managed to reach the throttle and reduced Voodoo’s power. At that point Hannah radioed that he “(wasn’t) out of it yet,” but he wasn’t thinking clearly. Later, he declared a mayday and made a perfect landing. … On the ground one could see what cause Voodoo’s problems during the race. The left elevator torque tube failed when the elevator trim fluttered and departed the plane. Fortunately, Bob Hannah’s skill and coolness in the cockpit saved day.

When the trim tab fell off Voodoo , the plane shot upwards and the 10G deceleration force caused Bob Hannah to black out entirely. That’s just as you would expect: the faster you go, the more the plane points upwards on its own, and the more you need to point the nose down to trim the airplane. Thus, at speed and level, the trim tab points up relative to the airflow over the elevator, causing the elevator to be deflected slightly down to maintain level flight.

At over 500 miles per hour, there are enormous airloads on the elevator trim tab to keep the elevator in a position that allows the pilot to maintain control, making damage to the trim tab more likely. Remove the trim tab and the non-trimmed elevator settings immediately deflect up, just like when pulling the stick back hard. That’s what causes the abrupt climb (and corresponding loss of consciousness) when the trim tab falls off.

Hannah regained consciousness at 9,000 feet and, as you can tell from the above, took some time to come back to his senses. You can see pictures of the damage here . It was even the same trim tab. The difference between Voodoo’s close call and Galloping Ghost’s tragedy may have been pure, dumb luck: Voodoo didn’t roll after losing the trim tab while Galloping Ghost did.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean flutter caused the trim tab to dislodge, or that the trim tab was the cause of the accident, or that the trim tab was the only cause of the accident. It’s quite possible something else caused the Galloping Ghost to climb rapidly, and in that process the flutter developed or the trim tab was damaged. As has been reported , some members of the crowd noticed “a strange gurgling engine noise” before Galloping Ghost pitched upwards. Further, as discussed below, it’s possible the trim tab failure could have been avoided, and more could have been done — such as ensuring the pilot was harnessed properly and plotting the race further from the stands — to prevent this tragedy.

So, where might liability fall? I often say that fatal maritime and aviation accidents rarely happen as the result of a single, unlikely event. Usually, they’re caused by a cascade of failure.

First, pilot error. There was initially some chatter about the propriety of allowing an “80 year old man” (Leeward was really 74, but “80” somehow ended up being widely repeated) to fly in an air race, but he was among the more highly qualified pilots in the country — including having a third class medical certification certification as of March 2010, which was still valid as of the accident. The question, then, is not if the organizers or other third parties appropriately evaluated his health — he was certified — but rather if he or anyone involved with his flight preparation recognized any physical disabilities that arose after March 2010 and which could have impaired his ability to fly. Of course, his health is irrelevant if he never became disabled and there’s some other explanation for why his aircraft suddenly climbed, rolled, and dove.

There might be other pilot error, though. Planes aren’t like cars; improper control settings can cause damage to the plane even in the absence of a defect or a collision. Leeward could have been using excessive trim inputs to assist with the turns. It also appears that Leeward didn’t lock his shoulder harness to stop him from slumping forward, which is why you can barely see him in the plane. After the abrupt turn upwards and corresponding deceleration, his torso probably contacted the stick causing the plane to roll (unlike Bob Hannah, who had a locked harness [ Update : See Brad Haskin’s comment about this below .]). The videos show him hitting the ground at full power, so he was not conscious.

Second, defective parts, an unsafe design, or inadequate maintenance. A broken trim tab is obviously a problem, and it’s a known weakness in P-51s. Was the plane properly inspected and maintained? Here, there are questions of method and timing . FAR 43.13 requires:

Each person performing maintenance, alteration, or preventive maintenance on an aircraft, engine, propeller, or appliance shall use the methods, techniques, and practices prescribed in the current manufacturer’s maintenance manual or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness prepared by its manufacturer, or other methods, techniques, and practices acceptable to the Administrator, except as noted in §43.16. He shall use the tools, equipment, and test apparatus necessary to assure completion of the work in accordance with accepted industry practices. If special equipment or test apparatus is recommended by the manufacturer involved, he must use that equipment or apparatus or its equivalent acceptable to the Administrator.

As Mike Busch summed it up , “The key to understanding FAR 43.13 is the phrase ‘methods, techniques and practices.’ That phrase refers to how to do something, not when to do something.” There’s thus not as much federal law for when maintenance should be done, but industry standards — and the general duty of reasonable under negligence law — demand it be done with some frequency. I’d be surprised if someone of Leeward’s stature didn’t have his planes inspected very frequently, but, in investigating these claims, you often never know what you find. We’ve seen aircraft parts sold as “new” that turned out to be patched up parts from the WWII-era.

Moreover, it bears mention that Galloping Ghost had been heavily modified to make it faster . Can a P-51 be modified to the point that it is so fast, and creates such force and stress, that it becomes inevitable that the elevator trim tab breaks off? Absolutely, and it would be negligent on the part of the owner, designer, and builder to fly such a plane at racing speeds above a dense crowd of spectators. [ Update : See the comment about experimental planes below .]

Third, flight planning. Whenever a plane crashes into a populated area, the choice of route comes under scrutiny, as does the possibility of airport controller error. All low-flying planes create a danger of impact (consider, for example, the Ramstein disaster) and the National Championship Air Races has had more than its fair share of fatal crashes and near-misses like Voodoo . It is no stretch to say that it was only a matter of time before one of those accidents ended up happening in the stands. Sure, it’s thrilling for the crowd to be up close to the planes as they race, and unsurprising that the organizers would set up the race that way [ Update: see TCinLA’s comment below, it wasn’t always that way, spectators used to be prohibited from even stepping foot on the tarmac, much less having seats there ], but the companies making money off the event are charged by law with ensuring the safety of those spectators, including by toning down the thrills just a bit if it makes everyone safer.

So now what? Nine people are dead and dozens are injured, many seriously, many permanently. Lives lost, contributions to families lost, wages lost, and medical care needed. Some tort reformers have complained that, even though most accidents are simple pilot error, every airplane crash results in a flurry of litigation against airplane manufacturers, event organizers, and plane owners and mechanics.

There’s a reason for that: airplane crashes cause a lot of damage and are rarely a fluke or understandable mistake. They are one of the classic types of situations that our civil litigation system was designed to address.

A rule of thumb in aircraft disaster litigation is: name all involved parties in the complaint. It’s unfortunate, but in general plaintiffs need to sue everyone — from the City that hosted the event, to the organizers of the show, to the owners of the field, to the owner of the plane, the mechanics for the plane, and the pilot of the plane — to ensure that a plaintiff doesn’t learn, after the statute of limitations has expired, that they sued the wrong party. Defendants and insurance companies are more than happy to play games with shell entities and business arrangements, and there’s no way to know, pre-suit, what the contracts between the parties look like or how a court will rule on their various relationships. ( Here’s one air show crash case, from California, in which the plaintiffs won against the company and City that managed the airport in front of the trial court only to have that entire part of their case thrown out on appeal.)

There’s no reason why an injured party can’t file a lawsuit before the NTSB investigation concludes — indeed, they usually have to, given how long the investigation takes — but typically those cases take a back seat to the initial interviews and damage assessment. Whatever the NTSB and legal outcome, this crash may spell the end of the National Championship Air Races, at least in their current form. Maybe that’s for the best; if they’re not run in a safe manner, they shouldn’t be run at all. Or maybe the solution is something as simple as ensuring planes conform to safe designs, mandating the use of proper harnesses, and moving the race a little bit further from the crowd.

[ Note : I already allowed through a couple comments of the lawyers-are-scum variety, and I replied in turn. If you’re about to leave a comment that plaintiffs’ lawyers are ruining America or the like , then don’t bother. We have enough already. Words are cheap; lifelong medical care or the death of a spouse or parent, not so much. ]

what caused the galloping ghost to crash

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Aviation accident at the reno air race, what happened, what we found, what we recommended, lessons learned.

Lawsuits from Reno Air Races crash could aim at multiple groups

Coolers that held beverages for Reno Air Races fans lay among the debris Sept. 17, 2011, from the air crash that killed nine people, including the pilot, on Sept. 16, 2011.

Publication date: Sept. 20, 2011

When the lawsuits are filed — and experts say they will be — following last week's air race disaster, experts say the target may not only include the owner of the plane, but also the Reno Air Racing Association Inc. and the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, which runs the Reno Stead Airport.

As pilots and owners continually make faster planes, such as the highly modified Galloping Ghost piloted by Jimmy Leeward, the question becomes whether the planes' structure can withstand that pressure, said Maxwell Kennerly, a Philadelphia-based aviation lawyer.

The owner-pilot built the plane, the race organizers allowed that modified and potentially dangerous plane to fly, and the owners of the airport allowed the race to happen — a combination that means all three would likely be named in any lawsuits, Kennerly said.

Reno Air Racing Association runs the Reno National Championship Air Races, where Leeward's plane crashed Friday, killing 10 people and injuring at least 68 others. The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority is the owner and operator of the Reno Stead Airport, where the event is held. The air association leases the space for the air event from the Airport Authority.

Messages left with Brian Kulpin, spokesman for the airport authority, were not returned Monday. And messages left with Tara Travato, spokeswoman for the Reno Air Racing Association, weren't returned.

While the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation into what caused Leeward's modified P-51 Mustang to shoot up, spiral and then plummet into the tarmac — sending thousands of skin-piercing metals into the crowd, some say that photos of his aircraft are similar to a plane that nearly crashed during the air races in 1998.

During that event, pilot Bob Hannah of Caldwell, Idaho, was flying a modified P-51 Mustang called Voodoo — a plane designed to fly 500 mph — when it suddenly went into a steep climb, according to a Reno Gazette-Journal story on the incident.

"He didn't know it but the elevator trim tab broke off," reporter Phil Barber wrote. The "trim tab" is a piece of metal on the end of the tail that controls the plane's pitch and keeps it flying level.

As the aircraft climbed, it slowed, but Hannah's body continued forward and he was thrown to the floor of his cockpit. The G force sucked the blood from his head and he blacked out, Barber wrote.

When Hannah regained consciousness, he struggled to get his hand on the throttle and finally pulled it back, snapping the plane forward and knocking him back into a seated position, Barber wrote.

Hannah then landed safely.

The following year, in 1999, veteran pilot Gary Levitz crashed his modified P-51 Mustang into a mobile home in Lemmon Valley during the Reno Air Races.

According to the NTSB accident report, the tail separated from the plane. When investigators pieced the parts together "the rudder exhibited a shredded appearance through the midspan forward of the rudder trim tab location," the report said. The vertical stabilizer and rudder were not visible in a video of the crash, the NTSB reported.

Leeward's Galloping Ghost, a "heavily race modified" World War II fighter, was designed to fly a maximum speed of 550 mph at 5,000 feet, according to the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team website.

Leeward's team boasted that the plane "represents the leading edge of air racing technology." The team cut the wingspan by 10 feet and the back edges of the wings by 28 inches to make it faster.

"How fast will she go?" the website asks. "Hold on tight, you'll find out soon enough. Reno Air Races 2011."

The Galloping Ghost was on its third lap during the Unlimited Class race on Friday when it came around the final turn and lost control, according to witnesses.

Spectators said the plane pulled up, rolled and then went full-speed into the tarmac just feet away from VIP box seats. The aircraft disintegrated into thousands of pieces, cutting into spectators.

The NTSB investigation into the cause of the crash will take months, but officials have identified a tail part found less than a half-mile away as a "piece of interest."

Photos of the plane just before crashing suggest that the elevator trim tab was missing and might have caused the plane to shoot skyward, and then crash.

Kennerly said his review of the photos and video of the crash suggest that, as with the Voodoo, the missing trim tab may have caused the plane fly out of control.

"And the big question here is if you make these planes faster and faster, you have to wonder if it's causing the trim tabs to fail," Kennerly said. "Is the higher speed making the trim tab failure more likely?"

Kennerly said he believes that Leeward went through the same black-out experience as the Voodoo pilot.

When the trim tab broke, Kennerly said, the plane was no longer able to fly level and it shot upward. The G force — possibly 10 to 12 Gs — would have left Leeward unconscious, he said.

The fact that no pilot is visible in photos of the plane just before impact supports this idea, he said.

Kennerly believes that when Leeward passed out, he fell forward, much like Hannah. His body might have slumped forward, hitting the control stick, possibly causing it to spiral and then fly straight into the ground, he said.

"He falls on the stick, causing the stick to be nose down," he said.

Videos of the crash suggest that the plane was flying at full speed, which also supports the idea that Leeward was unconscious, Kennerly said.

"If he was conscious, he would have pulled back to slow it down," he said.

Photos also show that the landing gear on the back of the plane had deployed, he said. Kennerly thinks that the intense pressure from the G force pushed the landing gear out.

"You can build a plane that flies fast, but can it withstand the way you're operating it?" Kennerly asked. "Did he make the plane so fast and powerful that it broke its own trim tab?"

Mike Danko, a San Mateo, Calif.-based lawyer, said the modifications by these experimental racers are pushing the design limits.

"You're pushing the aircraft beyond what it's supposed to do," he said. "And that's not a good thing in terms of airplane liability."

Danko said airplane tail sections can become unstable when they're going faster than the structure can handle. This is called flutter, he said.

"The airflow becomes unstable and can rip apart the tail in a matter of seconds," he said. "This new structure at a different speed — that's asking for trouble."

An analogy, Kennerly said, would be building a race car with double the horsepower but not changing the brakes or tires.

"You might end up with a car so powerful, you don't have the traction or the brakes to stop it," he said.

Danko said pilots and designers should have the right to create experimental aircraft that fly at these high speeds.

"But what about the spectators," he asked. "Should they allow to be in such close proximity to these aircraft when they are pushed to their design limits?"

In the months to come, Kennerly said the courts will likely be asked to address the question of whether the planes are too dangerous to be flown with spectators nearby.

"If we assume the plane itself was unsafe due to its modifications," the most likely liability will be both on the owner and the pilot, he said. "And on the race organizers for allowing an unsafe plane to fly in its race."

And the airport authority "may retain responsibility for the way the race was run," he said.

"The fact that it was an experimental plane, a modified plane that fell apart in flight, that's the probable cause that the plane was inherently unsafe and unreasonably dangerous," he said.

Investigators ID Cause of Reno Air Races Crash

Headshot of Andrew Moseman

Credit: AP / World Wide Photos

Nearly a year has passed since pilot Jimmy Leeward lost control of his modified P-51 during the Reno Air Races and plummeted into the crowd. The fiery crash killed 10 spectators and Leeward.

Yesterday the National Transportation Safety Board released its final report on the crash, which says, yes, the failure of the trim tab was the cause off the accident. Specifically, NTSB says : "deteriorated locknut inserts… allowed the trim tab attachment screws to become loose, and even initiated fatigue cracking in one screw. This condition, which resulted in reduced stiffness in the elevator trim system, ultimately led to aerodynamic flutter at racing speed that broke the trim tab linkages, resulting in a loss of controllability and the eventual crash."

Pilots push these planes to the limit, and this isn't the first time disaster struck at Reno . The NTSB also says that Leeward made many other alterations to the 70-year-old "Galloping Ghost," but that its investigators could find no evidence he properly notified the FAA about some of them.

The 2012 Reno Air Races begin Sept. 12.

Headshot of Andrew Moseman

Andrew's from Nebraska. His work has also appeared in Discover, The Awl, Scientific American, Mental Floss, Playboy, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn with two cats and a snake.

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  1. A photo of the crash of the Galloping Ghost at the 2011 Reno Airshow

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  5. Reno crash traced to failed screws, untested modifications

    The NTSB concluded unanimously that untested modifications to the ill-fated P-51 Galloping Ghost, combined with speeds topping 400 knots, led to a failure that doomed pilot Jimmy Leeward and the 10 spectators killed when the 74-year-old lost control of his aircraft during the 2011 National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev.

  6. Plane modifications led to Reno air show crash that killed 11: NTSB

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  8. NTSB provides update on Reno air-race crash investigation

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  10. Tragedy at Reno

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  17. Reno Air Race Disaster

    Leeward's airplane, a World War II-era aircraft known as "The Galloping Ghost," had been highly modified over the years to make it faster. Its original 37-foot wingspan had been reduced to 29 feet. ... (NTSB) determined that the crash's probable cause was a combination of worn aircraft bolts and speed. Several lock nuts on the left trim ...

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    The difference between Voodoo's close call and Galloping Ghost's tragedy may have been pure, dumb luck: Voodoo didn't roll after losing the trim tab while Galloping Ghost did. But that doesn't necessarily mean flutter caused the trim tab to dislodge, or that the trim tab was the cause of the accident, or that the trim tab was the only ...

  19. Lightning from a Clear Sky: The 2011 Reno Air Races crash

    Jimmy Leeward with Galloping Ghost before the crash. (Reno Gazette-Journal) Leeward's plane was a North American P-51D Mustang, a World War II-era single-pilot long range fighter that he had named Galloping Ghost. Galloping Ghost was originally built in 1944 for the US Air Force, but by 1946 it had outlived its usefulness and was sold as surplus to a private owner.

  20. WPR11MA454.aspx

    The airplane was registered to Aero-Trans Corp (dba Leeward Aeronautical Sales), Ocala, Florida, and operated by the commercial pilot as Race 177, The Galloping Ghost, under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.

  21. Lawsuits from Reno Air Races crash could aim at multiple groups

    Reno Air Races 2011." The Galloping Ghost was on its third lap during the Unlimited Class race on Friday when it came around the final turn and lost control, according to witnesses. Spectators...

  22. What Caused the Reno Air Races Crash

    This condition, which resulted in reduced stiffness in the elevator trim system, ultimately led to aerodynamic flutter at racing speed that broke the trim tab linkages, resulting in a loss of...


    Using different videos to give viewers an overall view of the race from inside the cockpit of 'Voodoo'( #2 position shot in 2010), to the grandstands, from t...