NTSB Recommends Changes to Reno Air Races

RENO, NV - A final report on the investigation of the fatal crash at the National Championship Air Races last year is still months away, but the National Transportation Safety Board says it knows enough now to make some recommendations to make the event safer for all concerned.

The events of that September day are by now all-too-familiar.

Running third in the third lap of an unlimited heat, the Galloping Ghost, a highly modified P-51 suddenly pitched skyward, turned over and plunged to earth in front of the box seats.

Eleven people including pilot Jimmy Leeward die, more than 60 are injured, some seriously.

Exactly what happened is a question still without an answer, but a NTSB Chair Debbie Hersman's press conference at Reno Tahoe Airport Tuesday brings us closer.

While much of the attention since the crash has focused on the loss of the aircraft's left trim tab near the apex of its fatal climb, NTSB investigators have rewound the story back to six seconds before when the plane and pilot are suddenly exposed to extreme G forces.

Exactly what caused that violent maneuver is still undetermined, but its effect was not.

A close examination of photos and videos taken at the time show sudden changes in the aircraft's trim tabs. The tail wheel pops out nearly fully extended and there's even an apparent distortion in the fuselage.

"There's a lot things going on with that aircraft," said Hersman, "but we also saw that they had a very significant effect on that pilot and he was likely incapacitated at the immediate onset of that event."

In fact, closeup shots show Leeward crouching to the side, then disappearing altogether. Hersman says an accelerometer in the cockpit was maxed at nine times the force of gravity. That's considered a physical limit even for pilots in fighter aircraft.

She says the Air Race organization should institute training in the effects of G-forces and perhaps require pilots wear special suits designed to offset those effects.

Air Race CEO Mike Houghton says that could be a problem.

"The price tag on it's about $15 to 20 thousand dollars. I don't see the pilots investing in that particular item."

Hersman says the suits worn by pilots on the Red Bull air racing circuit cost less than that and she adds, "We're talking about a million dollar aircraft and when you thing about using these g-suits to protect not only the aircraft, but to keep the pilot in control, we think it's a wise investment."

Hersman points out that until that accident, pilot Jimmy Leeward had never flown that plane that fast on this course, so the NTSB is recommending pre-race testing and/or engineering of these modified plans.

Other recommendations include putting at least a 1000 feet of distance between the action and the audience and considering redesigning the race course itself.

Houghton says that's already in the works.

"We could move the audience or the race," he says and "by jiggling g things around a little bit we may shorten the course, but we may soften the turns."

Houghton says a redesign would maintain a course providing a maximum of three and a half G's at 550 mph.

The NTSB's final report may come before the races this September and could be accompanied with more recommendations, but Houghton says he's confident any changes could be made in time.

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