RENO, NV - One week after 11 were killed and scores injured when a a racing aircraft crashed at the Reno Air Races, the long process of determining what went wrong has begun.
The definitive answer is months, perhaps a year away, but the National Transportation Safety Board has released its first report on the accident.
The five paragraph report released Friday contained little new information, but it did give a glimpse at the amount of evidence that investigators will have to work with.
The report outlines the final moments of pilot Jimmy Leeward’s P-51 “Galloping Ghost’s” flight.
The report says the aircraft was in a “steep left turn headed toward the home pylon when it banked to the left and then the right, turning away from the race course and pitching to a steep nose-high attitude.”
Witnesses and photographic evidence, the report says, “indicates that a piece of the airframe separated during those maneuvers.”
The NTSB doesn’t say so, but all evidence indicates it is referring to the left trim tab on the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer, its tail.
Photographs obtained by KOLO 8 News Now clearly show the trim tab tearing off the plane shortly before it shoots sharply skyward.
Hundreds of feet above the grandstands, the plane appears to stall and quickly plunge to earth scattering debris through the crowd.
Racing veterans familiar with the P-51 tell us losing one trim tab would bend the torque tube connecting both, rendering the plane suddenly unbalanced and possibly causing it to pitch up sharply.
The NTSB says the aircraft was equipped with a video camera and a telemetry system that recorded and broadcast performance data to a ground station.
That equipment was recovered and will be studied. Already there’s some hint what that data may show.
Flying Magazine is reporting a crew member of another P-51 is saying it will show Leeward was subjected to a g-force of 11 as the plane shot skyward.
That force would almost certainly have left him unconscious.
The data, the crew member said, will also show the plane’s engine quit momentarily at the apex of the climb, possibly due to fuel starvation, then resumed power as it dived earthward.
During the 1998 races another P-51, “Voodoo”, piloted by Bob Hannah, also lost its trim tab and immediately pitched upward, Hannah passed out as he experienced an estimated g-force of 10.
His engine, however, kept running. At 9,000 feet he regained consciousness and was able to land safely.
Leeward, of course, didn’t have the time or altitude to recover.