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 <em>Galloping Ghost</em> Shortly Before Fatal Crash”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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:

    http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/summary/AAB1201.html

    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.

    http://www.flyingmag.com/technique/accidents/aftermath-reno-air-race-crash?page=0,0

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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!

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

  7. 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…

  8. 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.

    1. 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!

    1. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

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

  12. 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.

  13. 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…

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

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