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The Crash of the Galloping Ghost

Science and Technology, National Issues

In the news lately has been fairly extensive coverage of the tragic crash of an unlimited racer at the Reno Air Races. The crash killed several spectators and sent many to the hospital. I am always amazed at the incompetence of news reports concerning aircraft accidents. While there is no shortage of knowledgeable authorities on aviation, reporters seem to never avail themselves of this resource and persist in publishing ignorant reports of accidents. This is an attempt to correct some of the misinformation, misconceptions and clueless comments concerning this accident.

My qualifications for this critique are an 11-year Air Force career, 4 years active duty as a jet fighter pilot and 8 years in the Reserves flying C-130 tactical transports. I have maintained a strong interest in aviation and am a long-time member of the Air Force Association. I am also an engineer with a background and continuing interest in avionics and aviation. When it comes to flying, I think I know what I am talking about.

Something about the Reno Air Races. These are long-standing competitions going back at least 30 years, the only unlimited-class races left in the country. While there are other air races, the unlimited class, which is the premier event, features essentially any propeller-driven aircraft regardless of power and speed. It is dominated by modified World War II fighter planes, mostly P-51 Mustangs and F8-F Bearcats, with an occasional P-47 Thunderbolt. These planes are souped up and reach speeds in excess of 500 MPH around a closed pylon course. Practically any modification compatible with safety is permitted.

The races take place on a former Air Force base to the west of Reno in a town called Stead. The base configuration allows close spectator viewing on the former aircraft parking ramp. The closest spectator bleachers are reserved for VIP's. This may be unwise, but the safety record of the Reno Air Races is excellent. This is the first incident in my recollection where spectators were injured.

The aircraft involved in the crash was a heavily-modified P-51 Mustang named Galloping Ghost. It has competed for years and once dominated the race. The last few years it has not won. The owner and pilot, 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, has competed in air races, especially Reno, for many years. Stung by the defeat of Galloping Ghost, mainly by a Bearcat, Leeward had reworked Ghost, upgraded the power and made some structural changes to reduce drag. He had high hopes of retaking the unlimited crown this year. Leeward was highly respected in the racing fraternity and a very active member of the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh fame.

 Fairly early in the race, Ghost was doing well but suddenly, just after passing the VIP bleachers, pitched  straight upward, stalled (lost flying speed), nosed over into a dive and plowed nearly vertically into the concrete ramp near the bleachers. The aircraft completely disintegrated, hittiing the ground at a speed probably well over 200 MPH, creating a large crater. The explosion and debris reached the stands and caused extensive injuries to the VIP spectators. Leeward was of course killed.

Media speculation has centered on an observed small part of the plane that fell off during the vertical ascent. The guess is it was an elevator trim tab. Media reports have described it as a "piece of the tail that helps the aircraft maintain lift." This is flat wrong. Anyway, it reportedly broke off after the P-51 pitched up so could not have been the cause.

Now we have to talk about aerodynamics--how an airplane works. This will refer to the type of vintage aircraft involved, not more modern planes. There are three control surfaces on a plane that control its movement in the air: ailerons, elevator(s) and rudder (vertical stabilizer). The ailerons are small panels at the trailing (back) edge of the wings, one on each side. They move up and down in response to cockpit control ("joystick") movement in opposition: one moves up and the other swings down a like amount. This controls the aircraft's roll motion and is the primary factor in turns. (No, it's not the rudder.)

At the rear of the plane are horizontal and vertical surfaces that form the tail, the horizontal and vertical stabilizers ("rudder"). At the trailing edge of the horizontal stabilizer is a panel, sometimes split in two halves on either side of the rudder, that moves up and down in response to joystick movement to control the pitch of the aircraft, causing it to climb or descend. Elevator upward movement creates a downward force on the tail, causing the aircraft to nose up.

The rudder is not a primary control surface; its purpose is to "coordinate" turns and correct for engine torque. Simply, it keeps the aircraft turning smoothly and evenly. (Certain landing procedures use the rudder to twist the aircraft horizontally, called a "skid" or "slip". This is not pertinent here.)

Now to the famous trim tab. As aircraft speed increases or decreases, the air pressures on the control surfaces vary. This tends to push them up or down, requiring the pilot of counteract this pressure with the controls. This would require constant force on the joystick during flight, which can be fatiguing and is not conducive to precise aircraft control. So, at the trailing edge of each of the control surfaces is a very small panel that can be adjusted up or down from the cockpit, usually by a 4-way switch on the top of the joystick. By adjusting these tabs--usually electrically--the control forces can be neutralized. These tabs do not in any way contribute to lift or primary aircraft control. There is no way the loss of a trim tab would have caused this accident. Pilot Leeward would have easily counteracted any control pressures resulting from such an incident.

So, what do I think happened? Realize this is pure speculation, albeit not completely in the dark. The NTSB will take a year to analyze this and probably come up with some unlikely scenario indicting the FAA. (That's another story.) Galloping Ghost went completely out of control beyond the ability of an experienced pilot to cope. The only failure that would cause the aircraft to pitch straight up would be a failure of the elevator system. Leeward lost complete control of the aircraft, although it did appear near the end he made some attempt to pull out. If so, I have no idea how he did this.

I believe the elevator control surface suddenly slammed full up, which would have pitched the aircraft violently upward. Originally, most WW II aircraft control surfaces were actuated by steel cables. If an elevator cable broke under the pressures of extreme high-speed maneuvering, that could have caused the problem. It is not unlikely, however, that Leeward had modified Ghost with modern hydraulic actuators, which opens up the possibility of a hydraulic valve failure. A broken elevator hinge might also be a possibility, but the pitch-up seemed too smooth for that. Bottom line: elevator failure causing a full nose-up maneuver uncontrollable by the pilot. What part specifically broke is impossible to pin down.

Leeward had made some modifications to the control surfaces as part of his attempt to reduce drag and obtain increased speed. He reportedly made them smaller. This could have caused increased stress during the race, but personally I think that is unlikely. I suspect the NTSB will not agree.

The saddest thing would be to dishonor Jimmy Leeward's legacy by cancelling the Reno Air Races. However, I'm afraid that is exactly what will happen as a result of a tragic accident caused by a mechanical failure.

Sometimes I think we try to be too safe.

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