The highly modified P-51 Mustang that was involved in a fatal crash at last Friday’s Reno Air Races may have been, for all intents and purposes, pilotless at the time of the accident. Analysis of photographs taken of the plane prior to impact show an empty canopy where the pilot’s head should have been clearly visible. Even if the pilot in question, 73-year old Jimmy Leeward, had been unconscious, the restraints would have kept him visible through the WWII-era fighter’s canopy. This has led to speculation that the seat may have broken loose or slipped back in the cockpit causing Leeward to lose control.
The Reno Air Races is one of the nation’s premier aviation events featuring retired military and civilian aircraft racing wingtip to wingtip at high rates of speed and low altitudes. Most of the aircraft featured in the race are heavily modified. Leeward’s P-51, called the Galloping Ghost, had its wingspan chopped by 10 feet and over 2 feet taken out of its ailerons, the movable surfaces that control the aircraft’s rate of roll. He is the 20thpilot to lose his life during the 47 year history of the race and, prior to this tragedy, no spectators had ever been harmed. That all changed Friday, however, as witnesses watched the horrific sight of the P-51 slamming into the crowd killing 11 spectators and injuring 70 more as debris and aviation fuel showered those not near the impact area.
Further study of the pictures also seem to show a missing trim tab on the aircraft’s left elevator. While this would cause the aircraft to handle quite differently, especially a modified racer such as this one, there is no reason this alone would cause such a catastrophic loss of control. The NTSB is continuing to investigate the incident and is not ruling out any causes at this point.
This tragedy is sure to spark a debate on the safety of such aviation sports. A similar race series, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, cancelled the entire 2011 season citing restructuring and implementation of new safety regulations following pilot Adilson Kindlemann’s dramatic crash into the Swan River during a 2010 race in Perth, Australia. It’s almost certain officials from both race series will want to head off intervention by government agencies by proactively introducing new safety rules. Many in the sport are concerned about the potential banning of such races similar to Switzerland’s 52-year ban on all motorsports following the 1955 tragedy in which 80 people died during the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race.
Sound off… Should aviation sports like the Reno Air Races and Red Bull Air Race World Series be banned over safety concerns?