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NTSB: Worn Parts Led to Fatal Crash at Reno 2011

 

Galloping Ghost
Photo of Galloping Ghost included in the NTSB docket.

August 28, 2012 - Deteriorated locknut inserts that allowed trim tab attachment screws to become loose and induce aerodynamic flutter led to the deadly crash of Jimmy Leeward's "Galloping Ghost" race plane at the 2011 National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, the National Transportation Safety Board reported Monday. The flutter, caused by the reduced stiffness in the elevator trim system, broke the trim tab linkages, resulting in a loss of controllability and the eventual crash, the Board stated.

According to a news release from NTSB, the September 16, 2011, crash occurred on the third lap of the six-lap race as Leeward's highly modified North American P-51D was traveling at race speed estimated at 445 knots (512 mph) and experienced a left-roll upset and high-G pitch up peaking at 17.3g, causing incapacitation of the pilot. Seconds later, a section of the left elevator trim tab separated in flight. The airplane descended and impacted the ramp in the spectator box seating area, killing the pilot and 10 spectators and injuring more than 60 others.

"In Reno, the fine line between observing risk and being impacted by the consequences when something goes wrong was crossed," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman. "The pilots understood the risks they assumed; the spectators assumed their safety had been assessed and addressed."

The Board also concluded that "undocumented and untested major modifications" on the aircraft, as well as the pilot's operation of the airplane in the unique air racing environment without adequate flight testing, contributed to the accident.

Regarding the undocumented major modifications, NTSB listed shortening of the wings from 37 feet to 29 feet, increasing the elevator counterweights, modification of the pitch trim system, and changing the incidence of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. Installation of a boil-off cooling system for the engine was documented, NTSB stated.

The 49th annual National Championship Air Races will be held two weeks from now, September 12-16, in Reno. Race officials earlier this year announced changes to improve the safety, based on recommendations from the NTSB as well as a special Blue Ribbon Panel appointed by RARA in January 2012. Course changes have been made in some race classes to position aircraft farther away from crowds. Pilots are also required to undergo special g force training this year.

"It's good news for the air races that so many of our recommendations have been addressed," said Chairman Hersman. "We will continue to push for the full implementation of all of our safety recommendations."

Read a synopsis of the NTSB report, including the probable cause and a complete list of the safety recommendations.

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