The death toll for the horrific Sept. 16 crash at a Reno air race stands at 11 now, with 74 hurt. And there was a crash a day later at another air show, this one in West Virginia, that killed a pilot.
Although fans of such shows, which are basically like an Indy 500 in the air, defended the races despite the recent tragedies, that’s foolhardy — and fatal — loyalty, if you ask me.
There are already two things that appear pretty apparent about the nose-dive crash of the World War II-era P-51 Mustang at the Reno National Championship Air Races. First, mechanical problems were the likely cause of the crash. A report issued Friday by the National Transporation Safety Board (NTSB) noted that a piece of that plane fell off while it was doing its maneuvers right before the accident.
Here are excerpts from the report:
“The airplane was participating in the Reno National Championship Air Races in the last event of the day. The airplane had completed several laps and was in a steep left turn towards the home pylon when, according to photographic evidence, the airplane suddenly banked momentarily to the left before banking to the right, turning away from the race course, and pitching to a steep nose-high attitude.
Witnesses reported and photographic evidence indicates that a piece of the airframe separated during these maneuvers. After roll and pitch variations, the airplane descended in an extremely nose-low attitude and collided with the ground in the box seat area near the center of the grandstand seating area.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration examined the wreckage on site. They documented the debris field and identified various components of the airplane’s control system and control surfaces.
The airplane’s ground crew noted that the airplane had a telemetry system that broadcast data to a ground station as well as recorded it to a box on board the airplane. The crew provided the ground station telemetry data, which includes engine parameters and global positioning satellite system data to the NTSB for analysis.
The onboard data box, which sustained crush damage, was sent to the NTSB’s Vehicle Recorder laboratory for examination.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the Reno Air Race Association are parties to the investigation.”
The part that fell off veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward’s plane is known as a elevator trim tab.
Secondly, experienced flyers believe that Leeward, a 74-year-old movie stunt pilot, lost consciousness right before the crash that killed him and nearly a dozen others. They believe, according to The San Francisco Examiner, that the gravitiational force of Leeward’s plane traveling at 400 mph, possibly 10 times normal gravity, put him out. Leeward cannot be seen in the cockpit right before the accident, which sent metal hurtling like scrapnel into a packed grandstand area.
Wired magazine offered a the most cogent explanation of the importance of the trim tab, and these excerpts outline what may have happened.
“The current thinking is an elevator trim tab, a relatively small piece of the tail, fell off the airplane (it is not seen in photos of the plane taken just before impact) and caused the P-51D to pitch up severely. This dramatic change of pitch may have caused Leeward to black out and may have even damaged his seat.
An elevator trim tab typically is used to neutralize control forces experienced by the pilot during flight. In high-performance planes in particular, the force needed to move a control surface such as the elevator — which controls the pitch, making the airplane climb or descend — can exceed the pilot’s strength or at least a pilot’s endurance to hold it for a long period of time. As the speed, or loading, of the airplane changes, the elevator must be in a different position to maintain level flight, climb or descend.
The trim tab is located on the trailing edge of the elevator and acts like a miniature elevator. But instead of causing the airplane to pitch up or down, it simply causes the main elevator to pitch up and down so the pilot doesn’t have to hold the control stick back or push it forward for long periods. The tab is adjusted from the cockpit, usually with cables connected to a small wheel or knob in older aircraft and via an electric switch in newer airplanes.
A highly modified P-51 such as those racing in Reno often are more dependent than conventional aircraft upon trim tabs. The wingspan of such planes have been shortened and they are typically loaded with an aft center of gravity that makes them more “tail heavy” than a stock P-51. This reduces drag and allows them to fly faster — often at speeds as high as 500 mph. Combine these factors with the fact that these competition aircraft are flying much faster than the 350-400 mph or so they were designed for, and losing a trim tab can cause a major problem.
Former motocross racer Bob ‘Hurricane’ Hannah experienced a similar incident at Reno in 1998. Racing in a similarly modified P-51, Hannah lost a trim tab and experienced a severe pitch up, much like Leeward. Hannah lost consciousness, but his plane continued climbing long enough for him to regain consciousness and land safely.”
As mentioned, the Reno crash wasn’t the only deadly air show accident. Last Saturday pilot John Mangan of Concord, N.C., was killed when his post-World War II plane crashed into a runway in Martinsburg, W. Va. The aircraft was a single-engine T-38 plane that was part of “the Trojan Horsemen,” the T-28 Warbird Aerobatic Formation Demonstration Team.
Both accidents are still under investigation by federal aviation safety authorities. Let’s hope that their discoveries can lead to safer flying in the future.
Attorney Gordon Johnson
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justiceg@gordonjohnson.com
:: 800-992-9447 :: Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.