New Picture Shows Pilot Missing on Galloping Ghost Shortly Before Fatal Crash

This newly released photograph has raised concerns that the recent deadly crash at the Nevada air race may have been caused by a defective cockpit seat. The pilot, Jimmy Leeward, should have been seen in the cockpit even if he had passed out in the Galloping Ghost, his vintage WWII-era P-51 mustang.

Ten people were killed and 70 wounded in the horrific crash. The new theory of aviation mechanic J.R. Walker is that the seat slipped back so that Leeward lost control of the plane.

Such accidents raise complex questions of negligence. Flying was historically treated as a strict liability activity and the organizers of the race are the most obvious targets of a lawsuit as well as the estate of the plane owner. While these planes are antiques, they have to meet some minimal standards of airworthiness. If the seat is original, a product liability claim would be difficult. Accidents caused by car antiques can raise the same complexities. On one hand, they are allowed to be driven without all of the protection of modern cars and yet their owners can be sued for accidents. Insurance companies have separate policies for covering antique vehicles and that has been litigation over the scope of such policies as in Sanner v. Zurich-American Ins. Co., 657 So. 2d 252 (1995). In a Lexis/Nexis search, I could not find any case where liability turned on the reduced visibility or capability of antique cars.

The first question will be, if it was a seat malfunction, whether the seat was original or a newer retrofit to explore a product claim. However, even if the seat were new, installation could have been the cause unless there is a foreseeable misuse claim. Usually, counsel would be less interested in the pilot or his estate than “deeper pockets” who can support damages for the scores of injured or killed persons. That would focus attention on the organizer of the event in allowing plane courses to come too close to the stands or not confirming pilot or plane worthiness. It is unclear whether any elements are present in the case.

91 thoughts on “New Picture Shows Pilot Missing on Galloping Ghost Shortly Before Fatal Crash

  1. The pilot is not missing. The angle of the photo caused the plexiglass canopy to have a mirror effect due to normal refraction. Walk around a car watching the windows. When the angle is oblique and the light coming from the right direction, the window will appear to be mirrored. What you are seeing in the photo is a reflection of the sky, making it appear blank.

    The apparent cause of the crash was the fact the trim tab on the elevator (horizontal tail) departed the airplane seconds before it rolled inverted and went in. Unless you have flown a high performance airplane that is out of trim, you have no idea how heavy the control loads can be. I once took off from after having my twin-engine airplane’s controls worked on. The mechanic had mis-rigged both the elevator and aileron trim tabs. It was off only about three degrees for the elevator and probably less than that for the aileron. The airplane accelerated down the runway normally, but when I rotated under full power, I very nearly did a barrel roll due to the bad trim setting. Keeping the airplane flying straight and level and coming around to land took every ounce of strength I had. I am 6’3″ tall and muscular. Had I been a person with average upper body strength, I would have crashed. I estimate the loads on the control yoke to be in excess of 150 pounds–and that was just to keep it from pitching straight up and rolling inverted, just like the P-51 racer at Reno. Furthermore, my speed was less than 200 MPH. Had I been going even fifty miles an hour faster, I doubt that I could have held it.

    The trim tab keeps control loads normal, and makes hands off flight possible when the plane is in proper trim. There is a photo showing the elevator trim tab departing the plane, and news reports say they have found it intact. Knowing how these things are installed, my guess is the hinges failed somehow. There is a hinge pin that is basically a piece of very strong music wire that runs inside the hinges–just like the pin on your office door hinges. If for some reason that wire works its way out, the hinge will let go. There are supposed to be safety wires, but they may have failed or somebody forgot to safety the hinge pin.

    The NTSB report is a long way from being in, but what evidence has come out so far points to the trim tab failing. Our readers who are boaters are aware that some boats have trim tabs, such as can be found on high performance competition fishing boats and ski boats.

    The only way the pilot would have disappeared is if he had put so much pressure on the control stick that he caused the seat lock to fail, letting him drop down out of sight. That is so highly unlikely that I think it can be dismissed out of hand. That was a fighter plane modified to be a racer. the seat latches are far more sturdy than anything found in a civilian airplane.

  2. Here is a very brief video of what it looks like from inside the cockpit of a race plane at the Reno Air Races. As you can see, if there is a malfunction, there will be very little time to make adjustments. Believe it or not, even at this altitude, some pilots have been able to eject during an emergency, but in the case of this week’s crash, indications are that the pilot was trying to pull the plane’s trajectory away from the grandstands as much as possible.

  3. Thanks OS – that is helpful in understanding what might have happened.

    A lot of things could be wrong with a picture someone took, including we have no real idea when exactly it was taken, it could have been during take-off as far as we can tell. If there was a problem the pilot could not overcome the investigation should be able to figure out what happened.

  4. OS What kind of plane did you have that problem in?

    I read some opinion that the pull up the pilot did was far beyond the normal pitch up that they do to drop out of the race when they have a problem. Looking at the missing elevator trim tab, that would seem to indicate that he had no or limited elevator control. In such a situation, it would appear that he did the roll to stop the resulting loop so that he would not crash into the crowd. He had no idea if such a loop could or would be done to clear the stands and the ground. Once inverted, it looks like he kept the roll going so as to carry him further from the crowd, but of course, the inverted portion turned the pitch up to down and the continuing roll was not enough to overcome the downward trajectory that had been established.

    AIr racing like this is inherently dangerous as is competiton aerobatics which I flew for a number of years. There is a line well in front of the crowd in both venues which is called the dead line and you may NOT cross that, otherwise you will be very severely penalized. The FAA and the organizers of this event have done virtually all that they can to ensure the safety of first and foremost the spectators. The pilots know the hazards and willingly accept those risks and since they will be the first on the scene of an accident, they do their utmost to ensure their safety. That this is the first time in the US that there has been any spectator death or injury at an air race or aerobatic competition is evidence that the efforts have not been in vain. The problem is that it is impossible to plan for ALL that can go wrong. This malfunction happened at the worst possible time and place for such a malfunction and was the only one that could have produced this result. I am at a loss to see how this could have been foreseen or prevented. The pilot did an outstanding job in minimizing the casualties and trying to keep people safe.

    As for his age being a factor, I have to inform folks that Heny Haig won the US aerobatic championship at the age of 60. That calls for exterme ability to withstand as much as +12gs and have very fast reflexes. At this level of flying, I can assure you that if there is any physical problem of reflexs or abilities, the pilot will be the one to take himself out. From his performance in trying to save a bad situation, I think it is clear that there was no problem with his physical ability. The one hope is that we will get more information from the FDR.

  5. I went back and did an extensive Google image search of the photos of the plane moments before it crashed, I cannot see Jimmy’s head or helmet, however there are several explanations for that. We do not need to speculate too much until the NTSB releases their report.

    I did a brief calculation and figure that when the plane nosed up suddenly at close to 400 MPH, he pulled at least 15-20 G. That means his body weight would have been between 2500 and 3400 pounds. No one, no matter how well trained or how good the G-suit, can maintain consciousness at G-forces like that. The most I have ever pulled was just a bit over 9 G and that was more or less momentary. Even so, there was a grey-out. I have to wonder if he was literally squashed in the seat. It is conceivable the seat latches may have failed at those loads, even though they are overbuilt with a wide safety margin. I notice the control surfaces seem to be neutral, so that tells me the plane was either not being controlled or they were literally frozen in place by the speed. Those old planes are not computerized with hydraulic boost like modern fly-by-wire fighters. They are controlled by cables and pulleys connecting the stick and rudder pedals to the control surfaces on the wing and tail. Literally no different than a Sopwith Camel or Fokker Triplane.

  6. Cap. Erb–it was a Cessna 337 Super Skymaster. Loved the plane, but that morning it damn near killed me. As you might imagine, I had more than a few choice words for the IA who signed off on it.

  7. OS:

    You’re a gem on this site with wonderful insights. I stand impressed and humbled by the clear and presceint thoughts that prevented me from my usual rant about lack of safety preparedness. Thanks for making me look reasonable.

  8. Mespo, I am not doing too well this morning, but aside from my wife, aviation is one of the loves of my life.

    This helped by distracting me.

  9. OS,

    I trust your expertise on matters such as aviation….I have never piloted a plane….so those tricky nuances…. I leave to you…..

    Now in college I was considering Pharmacology or Aviation or was that aviation through pharmacology …….. but I landed in the accounting ….

  10. OS – my father was a commercial pilot for 40 years. My father-in-law was a fighter pilot in ‘Nam and went on to fly commercially as well. I have done some flying myself. All of us noticed that in every single still picture of the plane, there is no pilot visible. I’d like to see pictures from earlier in the show.

    The obvious cause of the accident is the very visibly missing trim tab, of that I am certain. Elevator mishaps tend to be the most fatal of all. But I am wondering, as you mentioned, if during that crazy “pull-up” (which may not have been a deliberate act on the part of the pilot) he experienced seat failure. I have not looked inside a P-51 since I was a kid, and don’t remember if there is anyplace for the seat to fall to – a lot of fighters have the pilot in a “bathtub” of thick metal for protection against enemy fire.

  11. There is a very informative article in a recent EAA “Sport Aviation” magazine that discusses the Reno air races and whats involved to qualify pilots and their aircraft.

    One point in particular; if an aircraft develops any problem the pilot is required to climb out of the racing line. The two reasons given; one get clear of other aircraft, two gain altitude and time so the pilolt gets clear of the airfield [and people on the ground] and can then maneuver safely to a landing or ditch the aircraft.

    In this case, the pilot did just what he was supposed to do, climb out of the racing line. If a mechanical malfunction caused excess G loads that made the pilot black-out or his seat to fail the result was the same. At 400+ mph there is NO margin for error. A quick check of the list of fatal air crashes at Reno over the past 40+ years is a who’s who of champion air racing pilots.

  12. OS,

    I’m glad to see you posting again – especially with such robust and informative substance, but to echo raff, take time to be good to yourself. We’ll keep a light on for you.

  13. To add to the speculation is the experience of a friend from 30 years ago, who was on a nice gentle climb out in the school’s 172, when his seat slipped back a few notches, he didn’t release the yoke, and I think the natural reaction of most people would be to grab the yoke to keep from slipping. But since his seat slipped and he grabbed the yoke, well his aircraft too did went into a steep climb. He recovered only when he let go of the yoke and the aircraft recovered itself (and him.)

    I’m not sure how that relates to a P-51 and a stick or the training pilots have for this.

    And with the elevator trim tab missing, it seems intuitively obvious there were already pitch issues.

    But a seat slipping and a hand on a stick does seem one explanation for the missing pilot and the abnormally steep climb.

    This was an Ultimate Class aircraft in which, if the stories I’ve read are accurate, almost any modification is possible, and in this one there were huge physical changes to the aileron and wings (chopping them down 10 feet.) Even though all these changes were signed off by inspectors and probably aeronautical engineers, it still seems to be a far more dangerous and experimental aircraft to fly than any “merely” restored P-51.

    What is the process by which someone’s ultimate class modifications are examined and eventually signed off as safe to fly in a race?

    I am curious what others think of the contention that perhaps it’s the Ultimate Class itself that is dangerous and should be reformed in future races.

  14. As pointed out in the picture with the circle, there is also concern as to why the tail wheel is deployed.

    Was the photo taken after the plane was inverted and dropping?

    Could the tail wheel have self-deployed (fallen out) due to the high g forces from the pitch up?

    Can the pilot manually deploy just tail wheel? Would he to create a counterbalancing pitch down to the elevator problem?

    threadjack: ?

    What I find interesting is that they found memory cards from his cameras lying on the field.

    I find that interesting because memory cards have been with us for 10 years now, they weigh almost nothing, they can be almost trivially interfaced and “ganged” in redundant fashion, and I have no idea why 10 years down the line, the black boxes used in commercial aircraft (not this one) are not built to write to multiple redundant sd cards located in typically survivable locations around the aircraft. The tail, the wings, the landing gear. Air France 447, a fly-by-wire aircraft could have been solved much sooner had the tail, which was found early on, included a few ounces of an sd card writer and an sd card.

    Now, I am certain the FAA and the manufacturers are solving such issues. I have heard they want to have black boxes that communicate in real time with satellites.

    I can buy an sd card reader and sd card for $50 including 50′ of cable. Again, what is the process, what is taking so long for the FAA and manufacturers to come up with such an obvious fix that would have helped on many previous crashes, and is much simpler than 24×7 sat communications that still have single points of failure?

    /end threadjack

  15. The Moar You Know,
    If the seat failed, it probably would have failed down and back. You may recall the original had a huge internal gas tank, which was why the P-51 could get all the way to Berlin and back. When that tank is removed, some of the extant P-51s were modified to have a back seat. In the case of a race plane, no back seat is installed, but there is that cavernous fuselage back there. My guess is that he may have ended up going backwards and out of sight–if indeed the seat failed. Even under normal conditions his head sticks up just enough into the reduced size canopy to see. If he were crushed down into the seat by massive G-forces, it is unlikely we could see his helmet that way either.

  16. anon, your question was the same as mine. I wonder if he either grabbed or accidentally hit the gear lever and the tail wheel came out. I doubt it would deploy under a high G loading, but anything mechanical can fail given enough stress.

  17. I think we are missing the most obvious solution which is that the pilot experienced a personal case of the Rapture…

    …although I have to admit to preferring OS’s rationale.

  18. anon: I assume you are talking about flight data recorders. The Galloping Ghost did have a FDR. One of the things about FDR is not the memory, but installing and maintaining the sensors. General aviation is already expensive enough. Last time I had a tachometer fixed, for example, the cost was well into four figures. An alternator on some Cessna aircraft is made by Ford and can be purchased at your local NAPA store. But you have to have an AN number on it to legally install one in an airplane, which means that you can almost buy a used Ford for what a aircraft certified alternator costs.

    FDR on general aviation airplanes would likely put the industry, which is already on life support, out of business.

  19. OS (and everyone) – great descriptions; really interesting.

    I could argue with one detail. As a photographer I am very sensitive to light, reflections, etc. While I viewed as many images online as I could find in order to determine if I could have an opinion or hunch on the broken seat theory, I also looked at canopies. I compared as many P-51’s as I could find to as many Galloping Ghost images available. Although my dad loved that bird so much he spent every Army Air Corps lunchtime sitting in one, I am not that familiar. I do know light, though. I downloaded the missing pilot photo, opened it in Photoshop, and can clearly see right through the canopy to the other side…specifically, the inverted “U” shaped leading edge of the canopy.

    Somewhere else I read that if the seat broke, it could take the landing gear lever along with it and cause the gear to try to deploy.

    I wonder if there is any way for the pilot to be scrunched down below the bottom level of the canopy. I can’t really quite tell if the seat back is present or not.

    With sadness, I’ll just await the NTSB report.

  20. OS my threadjack wasn’t about putting FDR into general aviation — though I would like to see FDR make a comeback, even a zombie FDR.

    I was speculating on why FDRs for aircraft that require them don’t have SD card backup, and lots of them. It’s not really about weight. And in the case of fly by wire aircraft, it’s not because it’s even difficult.

    Of all the technologies that should be trivially implementable in a fly by wire aircraft, it would be the addition of a couple of SD card writers.

    I think it’s mainly about bureaucracy in this case.

    At any rate, …

  21. anon,
    I did not know this before, but I read yesterday the FDR in the Galloping Ghost had telemetry just in case the onboard data storage is lost in a crash. Now the only question is how many data points were monitored.

  22. The photo in this article is artificially compressed in the horizontal plane so it looks like it is at an angle (due to the shape of the plane) but if you click on it, it is lengthened to the proper L to H ratio. That doesn’t mean that the sun did not cause a mirror effect, it simply changes where the sun would have to be in relation to plane.

    That photo disturbs me also in that it looks too good for a typical ‘live’ photo. The ‘mirror effect’ could be photo shopping of a photo of a plane of the same model. Unless there was a super-high-speed camera deployed at the show I don’t know how a photo that good could be taken. I’m aware that current cameras and photo enhancement software can render extraordinary images and I’m not saying the photo is bogus, but I’d like to know what camera took that photo and what software post-processed it, It looks ‘off’ to me.

    I’d also like to know what kind of camera to look for if I take the better half’s advice and buy a new camera. That’s an amazing shot.

  23. A trillion years ago, I worked on a simulation of what was basically the F-16 FDR, one of our first fly by wire jets. I am sure that device cost half a trillion bucks.

    Right now, high school students send smartphones up in balloons to the edges of the atmosphere to take photos and other measurements. The guy behind rathergood hooked up with Sandisk to literally launch SD card laden paper airplanes from a balloon as well. Cubesats are replacing their innards with smartphones as well.

    Race cars have telemetry.

    GM cars have telemetry via ONSTAR that they sell, EVEN WHEN YOU “DISCONNECT” THE SERVICE.

    Telemetry is so cheap, I can’t imagine any project not having telemetry.

    Again, having little to do with the Reno tragedy, I would ask why the FAA is at least 10 years behind the times here. I think highly of the FAA, but I suspect they, like most organizations, have built up terrible bureaucracies.

  24. Regarding the photo – when I first saw it, I was struck by how crisp it was – I assume that it was shot with a good quality tele lens, on a camera that was set up for shooting fast action – wide open aperture and very, very, very fast shutter (notice how the fast spinning props are crisp?) But that’s exactly the camera setup you would want at an air show/race. A good photographer, with experience shooting this kind of action would have seen/heard that something was up, swung around, locked onto the plane and taken as many shots as possible. But I don’t think that anything I’ve said proves/disproves the “refracting bubble” issue.

    Big picture – any air race with stands sets up a situation where a plane could hit the stands side-on and kill many, many more people. That seems like an obvious risk that one takes when deciding to attend this sort of event. Just like standing along side a desert truck race course or a rally car course. These vehicles loose control, and if you’re near by, you may be hit and injured/killed. It’s an obvious risk you’re taking. Any plaintiff in a case like this does not want me on the jury. Caveat motorsport spectator. (The video of the pilot’s perspective shows that the planes fly over/near a residential subdivision – that would be a whole different issue if a plane crashed there.)

    Possibly dumb question – right after the plane pitched up, it did some side to side “waggling” – did that seem controlled or maybe just the side effects of fighting the pull from the lost trim tab? The spectators I saw interviewed seemed to think that pulling up and then “waggling” was standard operating procedure when you had to pull out of the event. If the seat failed or the pilot was blacked out, where would the “waggle” have come from?

    Also, whatever the effect was of the lost trim tab, wouldn’t that effect (i.e. pitching up) have continued consistently until the plane hit something (the ground in this case)? It looked like the plane leveled off, then pitched up, then rolled over left, then dove into the ground – not straight, but also not dramatically pitching up or rolling to either side.

    In this photo:

    It shows the missing elevator trim tab. This was probably mid-rollover – do the control surfaces tell anything about whether the pilot was doing anything with the controls as opposed to being unconscious or flopped back from seat failure? Also, because the cockpit is in full shadow, there’s not much to see regarding the position of the pilot, unless he was wearing a brightly colored helmet or similar.

  25. If the pilot lost elevator control, his only option to keep from doing a loop into the crowd would be to roll the plane and try a cuban eight with a roll on the downside to get the nose back up. I don’t think he was unconcious or disabled because of the manuvers he did. A sharp pull up may temporarily black out the pilot, but as soon as the gs lessen he gets back his sight.

    This malfunction happened at the worst possible point in the race course, and as you can see in the videos, ALL the other planes are well away from the crowd as they pass in front. It is a bit tough to have any kind of a race that would keep a plane from having control problems at the worst time and place and still be able to be seen and be able to keep completely safe for the onlookers. One has to assume that the planes will stay under control for all of the race since it will be impossible to plan for an occurance like this.

  26. In the photo by Tim O’Brien (linked above) it shows the elevator trim tab completely gone. An earlier photo shows the tab still attached at one end, as it became detached. When an plane rolls inverted, the lift vector is down, and it is normal for the nose to “tuck” down. That is something that catches beginners off guard when taking aerobatic lessons. In fact, when inverted it takes a lot of forward stick pressure to keep the nose in a level flight attitude.

    If someone saw the plane seem to waggle, that may have been due to a phenomenon called flutter. Flutter is one of those things that happens when the airspeed exceeds the design capability of the airplane. Flutter can–and has–caused airplanes to disintegrate in mid-air.

    Also, a wild or runaway trim tab could cause uneven flight as it tears away.

    This is what flutter looks like in a general aviation aircraft; a Piper Twin Comanche. This is one of those things you do NOT want to try yourself. The Piper in this video undoubtedly was equipped with a ballistic recovery parachute. The tail on this airplane is on the ragged edge of tearing away.

  27. Hey, all else being equal, in the early 80s, I had an amazing wonderful flight instructor. During WWII she ferried P-51s across the states to, IIRC, Newfoundland where male pilots would fly them over the ocean. She was also a powder puff derby winner, and we were told of the days before LAX was LAX that she would complete 14 turn spins over Torrance and Hawthorne.

    Here’s to you Iris.

  28. “A cuban eight with a roll on the downside” sounds like –

    a cigar and pastry . . .

    a drink with rum, lime juice, and cola; with a pastry . . .

    an uncomfortable British sex act requiring dexterity and flexibility.

  29. If you look at his facebook page, there are detailed pictures of the plane being modified. There really is no seat back. This plane is modified out the $#@ for Reno. It’s like saying the seat back in my Pitts S1C failed. Not gonna happen!

  30. Back in the 80’s I was flying a C-172 Skyhawk, the FAA issued an AD (mandatory maintenance) on the seat. I had to change the sliding rails and latching mechanism to a new design. Evedently the OEM rails and latches would wear and fail. The seat would slide back as the nose of the plane climbed during the take off. The pilot would hang onto the yoke as he slid back. The result was a nasty loop that ended by making a crater in the runway or corn field.

    Maybe this is what happened to the Mustang?

  31. I had to modify my C-177 Cardinal seat rails when that AD came out. However, the difference between those civilian seat structures and a highly modified fighter plane is about the same as the difference between a lawn chair and the seat on a D-20 Caterpillar tractor.

  32. @ Otteray Scribe

    You truly know nothing about aviation, let alone physics or the P51.

    You can Google ’till the cows come home… you still know nothing.

    Please STFU

  33. There is a new photo of the P-51 as it rolled inverted. You can see Jimmy’s helmet down and forward in the cockpit. Teh top of his helmet appears to be against the instrument panel. At that moment he was pulling several Gs–certainly enough to drive his head down into that position. It is clear in the new photo why his head is not visible. I was skeptical of a seat failure, although anything is possible. At the time this photo was taken, I doubt seriously he was conscious.

    Note also the missing elevator trim tab and the elevators appear to be in the “up” position. It is hard to tell, but the aileron and rudder are pretty much neutral.

    As for you, Ralphie baby, when did you learn to fly and what are your ratings? I started in 1950 and have flown both warbirds and civilian aircraft. Or is just being rude your idea of fun? Be critical all you want, but if you disagree with something, how about specifying exactly what you are disputing and back it up with some numbers.

  34. Raff and Gene: Ralphie probably will tell Capt. Erb he does not know anything either. Notice the great detail and well-reasoned arguments Ralph puts forth. The depth of analysis and experience Ralphie brings to the table is breathtaking.

  35. OS,

    Some people have the depth of a cenote.
    Some people have the depth of a saucer.
    I’m thinking ol’ Ralphing is much closer to the dinnerware end of that spectrum.

  36. OS, that’s not a new photograph, that was remarked on several times when it came out.

    Of course, I don’t know how people can look at that photograph and not notice most of the week is missing.

  37. Damn weird typo ruined everything. Stupid fingers.

    Okay, I’ll say it again now that I ruined it just for closure:

    OS, that’s not a new photograph, that was remarked on several times when it came out.

    Of course, I don’t know how people can look at that photograph and not notice most of the wing is missing.

  38. None of the wing nor stabilizer is missing except for the trim tab. The wings were clipped (shortened) but it is easy to see the rectangular notch in the trailing edge of the elevator missing. That is where the trim tab had been before it departed the airplane only a few seconds before. There is been a widely distributed photo of the trim tab just as it was separating from the airplane. Here is a link to that photo.

    My point was that with all the speculation about the seat back giving way, I had not seen evidence of that, and where Jimmy was in the cockpit was the subject of discussion. I had seen photos of the plane inverted, but none I had seen were clear enough or large enough to see inside the cockpit. With the clear photo of his helmet all the way forward against the instrument panel explains where he was. The seat held, but he was so far forward in the cockpit his helmet was below the rim of the cockpit where you cannot see him. He was literally squashed down. All the speculation about him controlling the plane appears to be incorrect given his position in that cockpit and the likely blackout from the high G forces.

    Here is a close-up of what the trim tab is supposed to look like. This is not the same airplane, but is one in British markings on display.

  39. OS is correct, Ralph is a thundering idiot. G-induced LOC or possibly neck-snap due to sudden climb caused by loss of elevator trim tab. The “missing” pilot is not missing; he is either slumped forward or jammed backward in a possibly-broken seat.

    The pilot was not in control of the airplane beginning shortly after the onset of the climb. Unfortunately, he probably did very little in the way of “steering to avoid he crowd” – the plane merely completed an uncontrolled climb-to-inverted and continued straight down under race power (NTSB preliminary statement). Had the pilot been conscious or able to manipulate the controls at any time during the final seconds, first instinct – ingrained through decades of training and experience – would be to pull power. Didn’t happen.

    Tragic accident which I hope does not cause a knee-jerk reaction against race or airshow events.

    -PP/SEL, former USAF, CAP

  40. Yet Another Pilot sez: “Tragic accident which I hope does not cause a knee-jerk reaction against race or airshow events.”


    Anyone else here old enough to remember Bill Odom and his race plane Begin the Beguine? It had part of the Cole Porter score painted down the side of the plane. The horrific crash of that P-51 in September 1949 ended the historic Cleveland Air Races. After the outcry about the danger, the races were moved to Reno, Nevada thinking the desert would be a better venue than a large city.

    I hope the outcry this time–and there will be one–will result in cooler heads prevailing. The desert is safer than holding the race in a city. Racing is a dangerous sport for both competitor and spectator. It is part of the price of your ticket. In the Indianapolis 500 several years ago a race car ended up in the stands. In April 2009, Carl Edwards became airborne in a NASCAR race but the heavy fence kept his car out of the front row seats, although some spectators were nicked by flying car parts.

    The Reno Air Races are billed as the world’s fastest motorsport with good reason. Where else can aviation and race fans get to see some of the best flying in the world, marked by the snarl of big round engines as well as the song of the Rolls-Royce Merlin? And like NASCAR and IRL racing have contributed safety innovations that end up in your family car; many safety features that affect all air travelers have come from racing airplanes.

  41. Forgot to add links. The background music that plays automatically is the Cole Porter tune, Begin the Beguine. Part of that score was painted down the side of Bill Odom’s P-51 race plane. Pictures of the plane are shown about halfway down the page as well as the crash site still burning.

  42. raff, after WW-II there were all kinds of experimental projects. Work with ram jets was a big thing and they hung ramjets on all kinds of surplus high performance planes. Thing about ram jets, unlike turbines they have few moving parts and in theory can generate a lot of thrust. However, in order to even start a ram jet they have to be moving very fast through the air to start the ignition and thrust process. It was ideal to hang the things on high speed fighters for experimental purposes. It would not surprise me to learn that since they were tried on many of the faster WW-II warbirds, Mustangs would have been a logical choice. As far as I know,most ram jet projects fell by the wayside. The SR-71 is a brilliant exception. It uses a turbine jet engine at slower speeds, but at high speeds the engine converts itself to a ramjet. What has been made public is that ram jet experiments are continuing, the latest being the hypersonic SCRAM jet.

  43. Reno Air Races in sept.1998 in the Unlimited Heat 3c Gold Race of 5 laps. Bob Hannah was flying a P-51 called Voodoo in which it`s Left Elevator trim tab departed the aircraft as a direct result of Flutter which also cause the Left Tourque-Tube too break. When that Happened the plane went into a Very High G-Pull-Up which knocked Bob Hannah out if not for Bob Hannah reducing the power when he came too. We may have lost him as we`ll that day. Get more info about it via thru. Avweb and Air Classics magazine the 1998 Reno Edition.

  44. Otteray Scribe,

    I am so sorry to have read of the loss of your wife, it is too much for one to suffer, for you have lost both your son and grandson way too soon. My heart goes out to you and your family; you have my deepest condolences. B8eja2tB1Gw

  45. The in cockpit camera reveals that the pilot was slumped foward there was no seat malfunction he was blacked out from the roughly 10 g force experienced when the trim tab failed. I find it interesting how this ambulance chaser is looking for the “angle” to get the most cash in his pockets.

  46. Bendix20,

    When this was posted, the photo of the plane rolled on its side had not been published. After it was, I located it and pointed out exactly what you mention. Even before that, I had done a quick calculation at the speed and angle change of the pitch-up and estimated that he pulled between ten and fifteen Gs, which is inconsistent with maintaining consciousness. See the thread above.

    As for the “ambulance chaser” comment, this legal blog is wide ranging, covering all kinds of non-legal topics. It has nothing to to with trying to get clients. Professor Turley teaches constitutional law, not practice personal injury law. Personally, I am not a lawyer, but a long-time pilot and forensic scientist.

  47. I might add that until I saw the photo of the airplane rolled over on its side and you could actually SEE Jimmy slumped forward, it was not clear if he had gone forward or if the high G load had caused the seat to fail and he had gone either down or backwards. As I pointed out above, seat failure was a possibility to be considered, but not very likely.

  48. While Jimmy may have blacked out in the initial pull up, as soon as the G forces let up in the climb, he should have regained conciousness. I guess we will just have to wait and see what the recorders and the NTSB have to say.

  49. Capt, Erb, one would think that but if you look at the video at real time speed, he did not have time to react. If he had, the first thing he would have done is pull back the throttle, but he hit still going balls to the wall.

    I have pulled high G as I know you have. It took me two or three seconds to get my bearings after the brain and vision fog cleared. Jimmy did not have a couple of seconds to react before he hit the ground.

  50. I’ve read, long ago, the story of a Mustang pilot, racing at Reno, who lost the trim tab, he passed out, when he woke up, he felt “sandpaper” it was the structure around the stick, his face was near the floor… the plane had done a hard pull up, he recovered and saved it.
    That’s all I remember, strange that no one brough it up…

  51. Jorge,

    You have a good memory. I was Bob Hannah and it was the 1998 Reno Air Races. Bob’s trim tab came off his P-51 called “Voodoo.” There are a lot of similarities between the two crashes. Both planes were traveling about the same speed, approximately Mach 0.7 when the trim tabs failed. Some have speculated that compressibility was the culprit in both incidents.

    When Bob’s plane lost the trim tab, the plane shot almost straight up and he regained consciousness at about 9,000 feet. The “Galloping Ghost” rolled inverted and the nose tucked under into almost a vertical dive. I think the point to be made here is that Bob Hannah’s “Voodoo” traversed close to eight thousand feet of airspace before he snapped out of the G-induced blackout. Had Hannah’s plane not stayed upright, he likely would have met the same fate as Jimmy. And vice versa.

    Readers should keep in mind that the foregoing is nothing more than educated speculation. As Captain Erb points out above, we need to wait for the final NTSB report. They will issue two formal reports. One will be a factual finding and the other report a Probable Cause. It is not unusual for the NTSB to take a year or more before issuing final findings and reports.

    Stay tuned. I will be watching the NTSB web page.

  52. Correction, my bad. Bob’s plane did not crash. He managed to land it, minus the trim tab on the elevator.

  53. Otteray Scribe:

    since this happened to 2 planes, is this a design flaw or just coincidence?

    Also they built those planes to last. how many g’s could a P-51 take before failure?

  54. Bron,

    They are flying very fast, right at the top end (or slightly beyond) of the design envelope. They are not designed to deal with compressibility, and in fact, not much was known about compressibility back in the early 1940s. The old fighters are well built and well maintained, but it is a seventy year old design.

    If an airplane gets into a condition called ‘flutter’ it can be very destructive. I posted a video of flutter during a NASA test in this thread. Think of the energy of a concrete busting jackhammer being applied to that little trim tab. I got into flutter during a high speed dive in a Schweitzer 1-26 glider once. Scared the hell out of me even though it was only momentary.

    You do not have to be in the compressibility phenomenon for flutter to take place–just exceed the top design speed. There is a reason there is a little red line mark on the airspeed indicator.

    Here is what flutter looks like on a glider and you can see why I almost needed to change my underwear when I landed.

  55. I saw that picture already, thanks! I thought that maybe they had released “in cockpit” pictures. I read that they found the camera and electronic media from the plane. Guys, remember that these planes are highly modified from their DOD configuration. I owned a Pitts for many years and G-Lock takes a little time to get over. The plane looked to me like it was in the pitch up (elevator up) attitude all the way to the ground. The only thing in control of that plane all the way to impact was Mr. Bernoulli!

  56. Dewey, I agree. His flight path was a spiral, so he was pulling G all the way down. But once the nose tucked under and pointed down, it was all over for him.

    No FDR or in cockpit images have been released.

  57. The first time I saw the video in real time I was blown away because it looked to me like he flew over the crowd from behind and then hit right in front of him. My neighbor was there and had seats in that section. His wife decided that they should go shopping Friday!

  58. So, if the trim tab problem caused it, the only bad thing Jimmy did, was to wear those ugly white sunglasses when on the ramp…
    Godspeed Jimmy…

  59. Forgive my ignorance in the matter, but.. I’m curious as to what the smoke/mist is coming from the bottom of the fuselage, rear of the cockpit? As I understand the P-51, the engine exhaust is vented from either side of the engine cowling… What I see in the image looks like a puff of smoke/vapor/contrail/etc from underneath the aircraft?

    Also, whomever it was that said the canopy was just reflected sky causing a “mirror” effect, and thus giving the appearance of an empty cockpit.. You’re incorrect. If you want proof, just look at the inverted “U” of the canopy support bracket…. You can see the far side THROUGH the canopy.

  60. Water… they use water spray to cool the oil, to avoid the drag caused by the air passing through the oil cooler…

  61. That is steam. If you also noticed, there is no radiator scoop on the bottom of that plane like the stock mustang. They allow steam to form in the cooling system just like the pressure cooker in your kitchen then bleed off the steam. That plane was running balls to the wall all the way to the groud!

  62. It was me that had the first impression of a mirror effect on the cockpit plexiglass. That photo was posted only a very short time after the accident and I did not examine it closely before commenting, which is my mistake because I have been a serious amateur photographer for sixty years. As I studied it more closely later, my error was obvious. In taking photos of both planes and automobiles over the years, I have noticed that it is often hard to get a good image of a pilot or driver due to mirroring of the glass. I think that influenced my first impression.

    Dewey is right about the plane being under full race power all the way. He never had a chance to reduce power because he was experiencing a G load that made his body feel as if it weighed about as much as a Volkswagen. He could not move, even if he were not blacked out, although a blackout is highly likely.

  63. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really one thing which I think I’d never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I’m taking a look ahead in your subsequent post, I’ll attempt to get the dangle of it!

  64. It’s been a while since people have commented on this, but I wanted to add something. A friend of mine who I am privileged to know through my associations via work is a former P-51 instructor and demonstration pilot who also happens to be working with a safety workgroup which was delving into this particular incident soon after the crash.

    Regarding the tailwheel, he as well as numerous sources have indeed confirmed that the system is held in place hydraulically, and not locked into place like the main landing gear. Excessive g-forces can indeed cause the system to extend, which is not indicative of another failure in the plane, but rather of the extent of pressures exerted on the aircraft.

    At the time we last spoke of the incident he was speaking specifically about the sim card recordings. He expressed that pretty much everything had been already covered and documented in regards to the film which was more than enough to isolate the trim tab failure, but that the sim(s) cards(s) may reveal internal data about his body position versus stick pressure.

    I’m sure the NTSB reports will eventually reveal what is already known publicly about this incident, it being so highly publicized. Such a tragic event that hopefully is not repeated, but also hopefully not at the expense of such a beloved hobby and sport.

    Thank you for listening.

  65. The NTSB probable cause report is now out on the crash of the Galloping Ghost. The report gives the cause as a failure of the elevator trim tab. A combination of things, including metal fatigue and flutter due to high speed. Very high speeds will often set up a flutter in control surfaces which can very quickly increase in amplitude until the part shakes itself to pieces. Here is the official NTSB probable cause report:

    Flying magazine has an excellent article that is less dense reading than the NTSB summary and probable cause report. This article was published only a few months after the crash, but their assessment is consistent with the findings of the NTSB which came out last year.,0

    There are already rulings and suggestions in place for improved inspection of parts, and moving the race course further from the crowd.

  66. Here is a very brief clip of an NTSB flutter test in a Piper Twin Comanche, a popular light general aviation aircraft. When such a dangerous test is done, the airplane is usually equipped with a large Ballistic Recovery parachute capable of gently lowering the whole airplane to the ground safely. This what tail flutter looks like.

  67. Thanks for this clip and the NTSB report. It is incredible that the mechanics used old lock nuts in such a high performance aircraft and that no flight testing had been done. I have a bit of time in the twin Comanche and it is a great airplane for cruising speed. It has a number of rather bad flaws such as it has a very bad tendency to porpoise on landing if you are just a little bit fast over the recommended speed. I made a landing one time with not more than just three knots over, and it did that, but fortunately it did not come off the ground since I didn’t have enough speed. Even with full aft yoke, it just bounced along, but never broke ground so it was just an interesting landing, not a disasterous one.

    The twin Comanche also can NOT be recovered from a spin without a chute. It has a very bad tendency to go flat in the spin, and some pilots watched as one tried to recover all the way to the ground. This happened in Houston in the area of Baytown while some pilots were having a picnic at the airport. It is also very slick and if the nose is down with power off, it takes quite awhile for the airspeed to bleed off so you can get the gear speed. Since it is fuel injected, and closely cowled, on a hot Texas summer day, you have to purge the fuel injection system with a TON of fuel to cool it off so you can start the hot engine after it has run. Other than these little quirks, it is a very nice airplane.

  68. Speaking of twins spinning. I was getting a biennial in a Grumman American GA-7 Cougar. The FAA designated examiner was not really familiar with the Cougar. It has contrarotating props, so there is no critical engine. The rudder is enormous for the size of the airplane. He wanted to check me out on approach to Vmc, so I shut down an engine, feathered the prop and put the other engine balls to the wall. Then pulled the nose up until it was in a full stall. He grabbed for the yoke but I pushed his hand back. He did not realize the Cougar stalls at about 60 Kts and Vmc is about 56 Kts. I thought he was going to need new underwear.

    A doctor came down to Mississippi from Arkansas to moonlight in a local ER. He flew a Beech Baron. He was landing at night and forgot to put the rollers out. Had a prop strike, which killed the engine on one side. Instead of just pulling all the knobs back and let it plop down on the runway, he gave it full throttle for a go around. The plane snapped upside down and that’s the way it hit the runway. He was killed.

  69. OS That is the problem with the light twins for multiengine training is that you cannot do a really good Vmc demo since you stall before you lose rudder effectiveness. The Baron and C-310 and 400 series Cessnas can do a really good Vmc demo. That is why I liked instructing in them. Though you are supposed to not have the prop feathered if you want to do the demo.

    The problem with twins like the Baron and higher Cessna series is that you can do the Vmc demo and should be quite careful about everything, We had one of our instructors killed when he was doing a biennial in the owners Baron. We wondered how the plane crashed since it hit flat and had no forward motion. Then the mystery was solved when the girl friends body was found in the far aft part of the fuselage since she did not have her seatbelt on. We figured out that they were doing a Vmc demonstration and she was looking up between the seats. The pilot was not sharp enough to retard power when he lost control, and our instructor did not get it quick enough. She was thrown back into the aft part of the fuselage, and with the aft CG they could not recover from the spin and it went flat and she could not crawl forward against the spin.

    Another Baron crash involved a friend of mine at Ameriflight at BUR. A woman pilot for another operator was taking off on 26, lost power on one engine, and tried to keep it flying when she still had about 3000′ of runway left. She failed to keep her airspeed, and did the Vmc roll and crashed on the north side of the runway right across from our hangar. My buddy Steve was out on the ramp doing his pre-flight when she crashed. Steve did the decent thing, and ran across the runway, and dove into the fuselage which was in flames at the time. He got her out, and got burned a bit in the process. When he got back to our ramp, the assistant chief pilot called him up to his office and reamed him out for having run across the runway. The Chief had gotten a nasty phone call from the tower chief about one of our pilots running across the runway.

    I was based in OAK, and I met him at the company layover in FAT and he was really worried about his license. I told him that he had nothing to worry about and that the tower chief and Ameriflight chief were in the wrong. The AIRPORT was CLOSED as soon as the crash happened, so it was impossible for him to cross an active runway. I told him that if anybody did anyting to him such as firing him or reprimand or enforcement action, to call a major TV station and give them the story. Then he should take the camera crew with him to confront any fool who did something against him. Let them talk to the public and let the big boys decide who is right.

  70. As the last remaining member of the team that created the legendary GG iam interested in the investigation. At the Naval Test Ctr, Pax River, MD in the 50s Cdr Tom Galagher experienced a PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation) It goes divergent real quick and is stopped by releasing the control. I think that is what happeden.

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