Reno crash raises questions about the future of air races

The Reno Air Races turned disastrous Friday when a P-51 Mustang aircraft crashed into the spectator area. The accident raises questions about the way such races are conducted.

Marilyn Newton/The Reno Gazette-Journal/AP
This 2010 photo shows long time Reno Air Race pilot Jimmy Leeward with his P-51 Mustang, a highly modified World War II fighter. During a race Friday, the aircraft crashed into the spectator area killing three people and injuring 56.

[UPDATE: The number of people killed in the Reno Air Races crash Friday has risen to nine, according to the Reno police. Also, a T-28 aircraft crashed on the runway during a six-aircraft routine Saturday at an airshow in Martinsburg, West Virginia, killing the pilot. There were no other casualties, according to initial reports.]

The crash at the Reno Air Races in Nevada Friday afternoon – the worst accident in the history of the event – raises questions about the future of what’s billed as “the world’s fastest motorsport.”

Have the capabilities of the high-speed aircraft flown at very low level exceeded the abilities of even the best pilots? Should age be a consideration in allowing pilots to compete? Should the race course be moved farther away from the tens of thousands of spectators who gather there each September.

Sometimes likened to the top race cars as “Formula One with wings,” racing aircraft fly at up to 500 miles an hour and less than 100 feet above the ground. The fastest categories fly an 8-mile oval course around pylons.

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Many of the competing aircraft started out as vintage World War II fighters, such as the P-51 Mustang and the F8F Bearcat. But they are highly modified, with larger engines and aerodynamic characteristics that have been altered to increase performance during high-G turns that can stress airframes.

Jimmy Leeward, the pilot in the crash, was flying a P-51 named the "Galloping Ghost."

Mr. Leeward, a real estate developer and owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team in Ocala, Fla., was a veteran pilot who’d flown 250 types of aircraft. He was a long-time racer who’d flown at Reno since 1975, and he’d flown as a stunt pilot in such films as "Amelia," Cloud Dancer," and "The Tuskegee Airmen."

In an interview with the Ocala Star-Banner last year, Leeward talked about the P-51 – the aircraft flown in combat in World War II by famed pilot Chuck Yeager, who once shot down five enemy aircraft on a single mission.

"They're more fun. More speed, more challenge,” Leeward said of the P-51. “Speed, speed and more speed.”

Initial reports indicated that the pilot had pulled up and called “mayday” before plummeting straight down at high speed into the box seats at the end of the spectator area.

At this writing, three people (including the pilot) have died as a result of the crash and 56 were taken to local hospitals, many of them critically injured.

But given the total destruction of the aircraft, former NTSB investigator Greg Feith told MSNBC, the exact cause of the accident – perhaps a mechanical failure or a medical situation experienced by the pilot – may never be known.

Some have raised questions about Leeward’s age, initially reported as 80 but then corrected to 74. Those who knew him well reject the suggestion that he was too old to participate in such a stressful and potentially dangerous sport requiring physical strength, extraordinary reflexes, and the ability to react instantly to emergency situations including engine failure at low level.

Leeward's aviation medical records were up-to-date, and he was "a very qualified, very experienced pilot," said Reno Air Races President and CEO Mike Houghton.

Some witnesses to the crash suggested that Leeward may have maneuvered his aircraft away from the grandstands where the casualties could have been higher.

Four pilots have been killed in recent years. Over the years, there have been 19 deaths due to crashes and collisions at Reno, but none until this week had involved spectators.

Two pilots died at the event in 1994, and organizers softened two of the curves pilots negotiate after two more pilots crashed into nearby neighborhoods in 1998 and 1999, according to an Associated Press report. In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting local school officials to consider barring student field trips to the event.

Air shows not involving races also have a long record of accidents involving pilots and spectators. There have been eight so far this year, five involving fatalities. The worst was in 2002 when a Ukrainian Air Force fighter crashed during an air show near Lviv, Ukraine, killing 77 people and injuring 543.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials have taken over the investigation in Reno. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is involved as well.

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