As Reno rethinks air races, possible cause of crash is seen

Investigators searching for the cause of Friday's crash at the Reno Air Races are focusing on a critical part that may have failed. Whatever the cause, the future of the popular air races is in question.

By , Staff writer

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    Pilot Jimmy Leeward taxis his P-51 Mustang for takeoff at the Reno Air Races on Friday, Sept. 16, in Nevada. The World War II-era fighter plane plunged into the edge of the grandstands. The accident investigation is focusing on mechanical failure.
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Although it will be months before official investigations are completed, one likely cause has emerged from initial data gathered about Friday’s crash at the Reno Air Races.

Photos indicate a missing part from the control surface that maneuvers the nose of an aircraft up and down. That’s the “trim tab,” a critical part of the “elevator” on an aircraft’s tail.

Witnesses said they saw a part fall from Jimmy Leeward’s P-51 Mustang seconds before it pitched up then straight down into the spectator area, killing nine people and sending more than 50 to local hospitals.

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A photo posted by KOLO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Reno, shows the trim tab dangling from the left elevator as the aircraft rolled inverted just before plunging to the ground. Another photo by Tim O’Brien of the Grass Valley Union shows the P-51 upside down with the trim tab missing.

“Without the trim tab, the aircraft may have been uncontrollable,” writes Mike Danko on his Aviation Law Monitor blog.

At a press conference Saturday, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Mark Rosekind said that a component had been recovered. Although the piece has yet to be identified, he said, “We are very clearly going to focus on that."

If that was the cause of the accident, then it wouldn’t have been the first time at the Reno Air Races.

“There was an incident during the 1998 Reno Air Races in which a trim tab came off a P-51 named Voodoo Chile,” writes Russ Niles, editor-in-chief of AvWeb. “In that incident … the aircraft pitched violently up, causing pilot Bob Hannah to black out under a G load estimated at 10 Gs. He regained consciousness at 9,000 feet and was able to land safely.”

If the broken trim tab was the cause of Friday’s accident, that means it’s likely that the pilot’s age (he was 74) was not a factor. Some analysts and observers have suggested that Leeward (a veteran pilot who’d flown in many air races) was too old to handle the physical demands and high stress of air racing. Aircraft of that class race an 8-mile oval around pylons at about 100 feet off the ground and speeds up to 500 miles per hour, allowing very little time to respond in emergencies.

Before the most recent accident, there had been 19 deaths due to crashes and collisions at Reno, but none had involved spectators. The high number of casualties Friday has prompted race officials, federal aviation regulators, and others to question whether such events can continue.

The Reno Air Races, an annual event that began in 1964, draw tens of thousands of spectators and visitors, generating some $80 million for the local economy.

“No one ever claimed it’s safe to race vintage airplanes at speeds reaching 500 mph,” the Reno Gazette-Journal editorialized Saturday. “But it’s not too early to point to the lessons learned.”

“First and foremost, spectators must be better protected and educated about the dangers of air racing. Any discussion about future races should begin with ways to minimize the risk that wayward planes – an inevitable and accepted part of air racing – end up in the grandstands,” the editorial continued. “Schools should suspend all field trips to the air races. Race officials must review the steps they take to clear the planes – and pilots – fit for racing. (And no one should be criticized for wondering if the pilot’s age, 74, contributed to the crash.) And finally, when the time comes to decide whether to continue the races, economic impact should be the last thing anyone worries about…. If ending the air races is ultimately the right thing to do, we must have the courage to do so.”

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