September 17, 2011
Fans of aviation and the families of the dead and injured are mourning the September 16, 2011 crash of Jimmy Leeward's Galloping Ghost at the National Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Ten were killed including Leeward, and some seventy were injured.
I stress: Nobody knows the cause of the crash, and everything in this blog post is my own personal speculation.
The media has described Leeward's plane as a "vintage" plane. This is hardly true. While WWII-era P-51 Mustangs, like Galloping Ghost, have long been mainstays of the Unlimited class in which he was competing, there is hardly a component of the original planes remaining. These planes are as fast and as modern as anyone knows how to make them. They are the fastest piston-driven airplanes in the world, and no expense is spared to gain a fraction of a knot in airspeed. Each is unique and is built to the extreme.
Attention focused early on a photograph of the tail of Leeward's plane, showing a damaged trim tab on the elevator. This has happened to Mustangs before at Reno. In 1998, Bob Hannah was flying the P-51 Voodoo in a heat race and an elevator trim tab came off, causing an abrupt pitch-up which resulted in a 10 G deceleration that knocked Hannah unconscious. Fortunately he was able to land safely. Superficially, the situation appears very similar to what happened to Leeward.
Aerodynamic forces are probably to blame for both breakages. When airplanes approach the speed of sound (Leeward and Hannah had both been traveling about Mach .67), airflow over certain parts of the airframe will exceed the speed of sound and create shockwaves. These can be like hitting the airplane with a hammer. They cause buffeting and damage.
Other photos show that Leeward's tailwheel, which is normally retracted for racing, was extended. It's possible that there was damage affecting multiple systems on the plane, but it's perhaps more likely that the wheel could have popped out from a sudden high G load.
It's a major bummer for everyone involved. Hopefully this accident won't impact the future of the race, but that's another discussion for another time.
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