Tragic crash leads to changes at Reno National Championship Air Races |

Tragic crash leads to changes at Reno National Championship Air Races

Photo by Tim O'BrienNTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman speaks at a press conference Tuesday morning in Reno, where she outlined seven safety recommendations to make the Reno National Championship Air Races safer for pilots and spectators.

RENO – Following an extensive update on last year’s crash of a highly modified P-51 Mustang at the Reno National Championship Air Races, the National Transportation Safety Board issued seven safety recommendations Tuesday to make the event safer for pilots and spectators.

On Sept. 16, 2011, 74-year-old pilot Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Fla., who was flying the “Galloping Ghost” in the Unlimited Class, lost control of his racer while turning between pylons eight and nine on the course.

The airplane pitched up, then crashed on the ramp in the box-seat spectator area, killing Leeward and 10 spectators and injuring more than 60 others.

While not citing the exact cause of the crash, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman announced the recommendations to address race course design and layout, pre-race technical inspections, aircraft modifications and airworthiness, Federal Aviation Administration guidance on air racing, the effects of G-forces on pilots and ramp safety issues.

The recommendations, which were based on extensive interviews and more than 500 photographs and videos obtained from spectators, were issued to the FAA, the Reno Air Racing Association, and the National Air-Racing Group Unlimited Division.

Prominent in the investigation are the extensive modifications made to Unlimited Class airplanes and the lack of documentation and inspection associated with those modifications.

On the Galloping Ghost, for example, modifications included reducing the wingspan from about 37 feet to about 29 feet, and significant changes to the flight controls – all designed to increase speed and enhance aircraft performance.

Photos and videos helped the agency determine the sequence of events leading up to the crash, and that the pilot was unconscious while the plane was still in the air, Hersman said during the press conference at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

She added “more work is needed before they’ll know what caused the P-51 aircraft to fly out of control”.

IIn anticipation of this year’s event, scheduled for Sept. 12-16, the NTSB also recommended that pilots receive special G-force training and perhaps wear G-suits to help them deal with race conditions, Hersman said. And the race course at the Reno-Stead Airport should be changed to keep spectators away from the flight path.

“The Federal Aviation Administration needs to fix its rules to clarify whether spectators must be 500 feet from the flight path, or 1,000 feet away,” Hersman added. “FAA documents showed that one order demanded a 500-foot setback, while another said spectators should be 1,000 feet from the showline.”

“Race officials also need to change their inspection system to make sure that problems found during pre-race technical inspections are fixed and documented. In addition, each aircraft should undergo engineering evaluations to confirm that the airplane can handle race speeds and stresses,” she said.

Other items, including placement of the fuel tanker truck on the ramp and concerns not directly related to the crash, were also addressed.

Mike Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association, said his board would look at each of the NTSB’s suggestions to determine what can be implemented right away and what might take more time.

Some of the recommendations, including the G-force training, is already under way, he said.

Houghton said ticket sales have remained solid, including for the box-seating area that was devastated by the crash.

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