Dick’s blog: spotlight on air racing

Air tragedies are a lot like thunderstorms. There’s lightning and it is always followed by thunder. After the accident in Reno the general news media started having a field day soon after the crash, devoting both ink and air time to the subject. Some of the comments were knowledgeable, most were not.

Jimmy Leeward was a well-loved member of the aviation community. It goes without saying that he was an excellent and devoted pilot who would never intentionally do anything that would endanger people on the ground. Sadly, that did happen. It appears now that a trim tab came off an elevator and rendered the airplane virtually uncontrollable. The NTSB will have the final say on that, in the inevitable nine months it takes them to arrive at a probable cause.

P-51 crash at Reno
The end of the Reno Air Races?

Those who erupt in self-righteous thunder after such an event often try to panic the public about whatever activity was involved. After Reno, one such thunderous comment came from author Clive Irving in “The Daily Beast.”

The title was “Reno’s Reckless Air Tragedy.” The blurb that followed read, “The plane crash that killed three (actually nine – Ed.) and injured dozens of spectators at a Reno air race Friday is a reminder of how lax precautions often turn air shows into disasters.”

The opening paragraph: “What was a 74-year-old pilot doing in a souped-up World War II fighter flying in an air race? The tragedy in Reno is a ghastly reminder that the normal rules of public safety are suspended when air shows are involved.”

The story went on to cover other air show accidents and incidents and, in general, cast a bad light on air shows and air racing.

Even though you wouldn’t think too many pilots read “The Daily Beast,” there were almost 200 comments, mostly negative about the story, within hours of its posting. I will share with you the closing paragraph from one comment. The person who wrote this was not identified by name, but I know who it is and can vouch for his aviation knowledge and objectivity.

He said, “One thing those of us actively engaged in aviation know is that when there’s a crash, wait until at least a few of the facts are in before deciding what caused the crash. Mr. Irving, unfortunately, a nonpilot who once wrote an excellent book about the development of the Boeing 747 and thereby became an assumed aviation expert, has a history of inept accident analyses.”

So, what do you think? Was the fact that Jimmy Leeward was 74 a factor in the accident? Was the knee-jerk reaction too much? Does all aviation suffer from sensational negative publicity that comes after such a tragedy? Are air shows and air racing good for aviation? Do you think this will be the end of the Reno Air Races? Sound off.

42 Comments

  • Indeed, all aviation does suffer from sensational negative publicity in the wake of any sort of incident. Citing the number of deaths at Reno over the years, so-called news anchor Cheryl Preheim at 9News in Denver asked “when does the FAA say ‘that’s it, no more.’?” This was just hours after the incident transpired, and long before anyone had any real facts. From what I see, hear and read, it’s the media’s position that anything aviation related is something to be feared, hated, and regulated out of existence. I even had an argument with one of my fraternity brothers, who now works as a photojournalist, because I asserted that only 10% of what had been said in 9News’ coverage was factual, that the remainder of the coverage was sensationalism. I support the freedom of speech and press, but there are still libel and slander laws on the books. Last time I checked, the media is not exempt from them.

  • I immediately chided Hannity for his ‘non-educated’ and irrelevant comments on aircraft, pilot, and the races. Accidents and death happen in every sport known to man, even foot races! This was a very unfortunate event, but sh.. happens, we learn from it and go on to bigger and better races for the next time!
    Rarely are the age of the pilot nor the airplane the deciding factor in the cause of accidents!

  • If cars or motorcycles crash, its a nonevent. More people die every day in car accidents…why are those 80 year olds driving???..these self prescribed experts in the media act as self righteous judge, jury, and executioner before knowing the facts. These kind of knee-jerk “journalists” do nothing but subscribe to sensationalism that abounds in our society today. Perhaps he should do some research and actually learn about all of the regulations, medicals, and training we pilots must endure, as well as all of the inspection and maintenance requirements aircraft must go through. Safety is always of paramount importance.

    Airshows are great show cases for the aviation community, and are enjoyed by millions of people each year. Its a very sad day when the aviation community loses great experienced pilots, because the community as a whole is a fairly close knit family.

  • I was watching the Hannity Show, when the news was released, and called his program to ‘chide’ him for the ‘non-educated’ and irrelevant comments on aircraft, pilot, and the races. Accidents and death happen in every sport known to man, even foot races! This was a very unfortunate event, but sh.. happens, we learn from it and go on to bigger and better races for the next time!
    Rarely are the age of the pilot nor the airplane the deciding factor in the cause of accidents!

  • A lot of us in the media DO know what we’re talking about and we’re also pilots. While the Daily Beast — one publication — was indeed reprehensible, it would be nice if someday after an accident, the leading aviation community members would cite the outstanding work of knowledgeable media members. It would be a better way to shame the ignorant, while giving a boost to a better informed audience, which is always what we say we want.

  • I fear the air race will suffer from this tragedy. Most because of the uneducated risk averse public. I detest journalist with no care about how their lack of knowledge or desire to be most shocking in order to be read have no concern how their reporting will effect over the long term. We currently live in a society that is exposed to so much information and knowledge but is given little experience or willing to risk anything for it to gain wisdom. Age has less to do with a pilots abilities, even health. We also must look into the inspection of the aircraft, the part and it’s process of making, testing and even inspections there. I wish more asked why did the part fail, why didnt inspections catch this or could it. And yes perhaps questioning age, health but not without questioning actual skills, and the ability of the average pilot to recover from such a situation.
    But I am a pilot and a mechanic and I can be considered biased in my thinking, but a country who doesn’t check into the credentials of the experts whom they heed, will only inflame and pervert the thinking of those around us who will decide our aviation world.

  • If you take the number of doctors in the USA, and the number of accidental deaths caused by them, and compare those numbers to the number of airplanes and the number of accidental deaths caused by them, you will find that a person is about 280 times more likely to die an accidental death from a doctor than an airplane!

    There are similar stats for motorcycles etc.

    So why are doctors still legal in this country? Why are cars, trucks ant trains still legal?

    Face it “life” it’s self is what is dangerous! So why is life legal?! If you are breathing, there is ALWAYS some thing that could happen that would kill you. In reality, the ONLY way to be safe, is to be dead!

    Our society has gotten so focused on safety and emotionalized it to the point that a person can’t hardly even live anymore!

    As a pilot myself, I know the training, practice and hard work that goes into not only learning how to fly, but also into safety. Flying, airshows and air races are hundreds of times more safe than a bazillion things that we do every day.

    It is absolutely wrong and absurd to think that airshows and/or air races should be stopped. If anything, they should happen way more often and should be encouraged, supported and attended.

    So to the nay-sayers, get your heads out of the sand, use some common sense, take responsibility for your OWN safety and quit relying on the government to hand you safety on a sliver platter (cause regardless of what they say, they can’t deliver), and LIVE.

  • I have a different concern here — with each of these accidents, we all lose a little of our aviation heritage. Whether it be a modified P-51, T-28, B-26, P-47, whatever, I’m wondering if these beautiful, irreplaceable old aircraft should be exposed to this sort of risk. Their numbers are only getting smaller with each passing year.

    • All it takes Mike is some money out of your pocket, and you could start buying these aircraft and parking them……otherwise it’s the owners prerogative to spend 2.5 million and do what he wants with it!

  • Would Mr. Irving or others mentioning Jimmy Leeward’s age have thought it better or more acceptable if the mechanical failure and the resulting tragic accident had killed a much younger pilot instead? The outcome would have most likely been the same even with a younger man at the controls.

    To those who bemoan the loss of this and other WW2 era aircraft as losing a piece of our aviation heritage and history, I must agree that it is sad to see the losses. Yet one must remember or consider that the men and organizations who own these aircraft either saved them from the bone yard or bought them from those who did. If they would not have done so, these fine aircraft would have been lost to either the elements or the recycling process years ago.

  • Are air shows and air racing good for aviation? …depends how many people die… not sure you’d catch me sitting underneath low-flying planes racing at 500mph… but I love that we have the freedom to do it if we please. just don’t ask me to pay for your healthcare.

  • It’s certainly true that accidents bring out much of the worst in many–unfortunately, I don’t think that “we” the aviation community have any right to point fingers at anyone else. In fact, such a terrible tragedy should make us look in the mirror, examine our habits, and hold ourselves accountable.

    For example, discussion following the Air France investigation revealed a significant level of–shall I say it–ignorance from within our own community. We were fighting back and forth in the comments on blogs. We have some housework to do before we go attacking the media.

    As another example, a recent (ill-advised) letter to the president about aviation and corporate jets resulted in the same bickering and backstabbing in the blog comments.

    The bottom line is this:
    Let’s take the responsibility to set an example of what kind of behavior we want to see, from our colleagues, and from other organizations and sections of society, like the media.

  • Since everyone is guessing, here’s my “Col Mustard, with the lead pipe in the drawing room” entry: Several photos show an elevator trim tab missing. I would suspect a condition called “runaway trim”, in which the electric trim tab malfunctions and spools, uncommanded to full deflection. In such a case the pilot automatically inputs opposite stick pressure to compensate as the trim input increases. At those speeds, full defection of the trim tab would likely cause it to snap off. Then the compensating stick pressure would become a massive over-correction. At these speeds, this would all happen VERY fast. The control surfaces of a race plane have been optimized for high speed maneuvering, meaning they are smaller since they no longer need the surface area required for abrupt attitude changes used in aerobatic maneuvering. As such this pilot may have found himself in a situation where didn’t have enough square inches of control surface authority to recover in the altitude available. Remember these are HIGHLY tweaked aircraft and are no longer capable of the aerobatic maneuvering they were in their original design. At the first sign of trouble race pilots are trained to immediately climb and extend away from the crowd. Which is what this pilot appears to have been attempting. Condolances for the losses of all involved, but I suspect they would not want radical changes to the airshow concept.
    Blue Skies, AirBear

  • The big issue is that it could have easily been 50 – 100 people dead instead of 10. That would have caused serious changes at Reno. But this point, I don’t see the end of the event. But my question is – What happens in an aircraft, which has been modified as Galloping Ghost had been, at 500 mph, if the trim tab is lost? I am assuming, unless the angle of incidence of the wing/horiz. stabilizer had been been sufficiently modified that you get heavy pitch up with no chance of the pilot being able to counter the stick forces. Looking at the video clip that shows the aircraft climbing, rolling and descending, there is a point where the upward pitching increases significantly in rate. I posit that the point at which the up-pitch rate increased is the point at which Leeward, unable to counter the pitch up, blacked out. Does that make sense to anyone else?

  • I first attended Reno in 1967 and I thought then that the sight and sound of those racers pulling through that last pylon was the neatest thing ever. Later, with age and maybe more wisdom, I did come to recognize that it was probably a hazard for the spectators if somebody lost control pulling through that corner. Should the races be changed or eliminated because of the hazard? Definitely not; it’s still one of the neatest experiences around and well worth the small risk. The rest of you can watch it on TV if you’re that numb.

    My biggest fear is that the racers will quit spending the money and time it takes to go racing. That would be the real tragedy.

  • It is an unfortunate accident. Jumping to conclusions does nothing but fan the flames of the ignorant. As far as advancing the state of art of flying machines, I find it hard to believe that flying old WWII fighters highly modified to race advances the state of the art. I would like to see a move away from the old airframes into something totally new, maybe even unconventional. That would do more to advance aviation than any WWII fighter ever could.

    • The Reno races are not intended to advance the state of the art any more than a symphony orchestra using 100 year old violins is intended to advance the state of the art. It is an event intended to provide entertainment to the spectators and challenge to the participants. That is all. It is more dangerous than a symphony concert for both (but not necessarily more so than a state of the art Rock concert; you could check the stats on that).

    • Gee… I would think some of the other classes that race at Reno would at least catch your attention a little bit. How about the Formula One, Sport or Biplane classes? Not to your liking either?

  • This will end much of the public appeal of Reno. The races may resume, but without the fan base, it may be a financial struggle How many mothers will let dad take the kids, a staple of all airshows and races? Sad tragedy indeed.

  • The real goal here is how do we preserve this exciting air racing event for years to come, while at the same time assuring spectators that it is safe to attend them. There needs to be a way to reduce or eliminate the possibility of spectator CARNAGE should an accident occur. May I suggest move the spectators to the INFIELD of the coarse. You laugh, but where do most vehicles, whether aircraft, land based, or water craft, when racing in a closed (circular) coarse, end up after a crash that has occured in or coming out of a turn? In case you never noticed, and in regards to auto racing — in a heap against the wall on the outside of the turn. Not all accidents happen in straightaways. Skids while in a turn, whether in a car, boat, or airplane extend the radius of curve, not reduce it. Crashes like this as viewed from the infield give the viewer a better feeling of safety as they would be watching the wreck going away from them, instead of coming towards them. I rest my case.

  • Unfortunately, I think that the way a mostly ill informed media reported the accident at Reno, air racing does indeed suffer. That said, I do NOT think that this is the end of the Reno air races; I certainly hope not. It’s one of the premier events in the world, and certainly in the US. Personally, I do think that Jimmy Leeward’s age was a factor. A younger man may have been able to withstand the G’s a bit longer, perhaps long enough to steer clear of the spectator’s. But that’s all conjecture. We’ll never know for sure, will we? I still believe that air racing is good for aviation. Spectator safety must be made a priority.

    • Ibelieve that I saw a released report from the telemetry the NTSB recovered that indicated that the pitch up generated 22.5 Gs. Age would not matter in that case…

      The other thing is that actually I have seen quite a few accidents at Reno and most of them involved the aircraft either going into the desert right on the course, or into the dry lake bed to the east, or on a runway. Honestly I am not aware of any accidents prior to this winding up in an area close to spectators, and I have been attending since 1969…

      As far as moving the races further from the crowd, I attended the Paris Air Show this year and I have to tell you, that having aircraft performing more than 3000 feet from you is not very interesting with the notable exception of the Airbus 380…

      • I should add before someone does for me, that Gary Levitz went into a backyard in Lemmon Valley to the east (no one was home and the house was not hit), and Walt Twombly went into the side of a garage in Red Rock to the West of the airfield. In both cases changes were made to address the issues.

        Maybe Pylon 8 could be moved slightly south, or slightly north or west and it would straighten the flightpath out prior to the aircraft approaching the spectator areas. But it would be difficult to move 50,000 people into the area in the infield at Stead. It would be a logistical nightmare as well…

  • To criticize is so easy.

    To love your sport sometimes makes you reckless in attitude.

    From what I see in the remarks here there is generally a defense for rights.

    Flying myself, I know the desire and freedom which goes with the Wing. And I also know that my voice will not be liked in your blog after I dispose my opinion. And this is it.

    In an air race a year ago a plane lost both its wings and pilot in exceeding its VNe, 50 meters above the ground. This happened a hundred meters from me and those two boys were dead on impact. Two months ago two Albatrosses flew into a mountainside after an air race, my friend Linda gone as well as twelve others. Two years ago my friends daughter had multiple injuries sitting in the jump seat of a jet liner which crashed in a school yard during a display in an airshow. Another friend died in a military jet over George when he couldn’t get the ejector seat cord activated, he was new to the plane but qualified in jets at Thunder City.
    And I can recite for you the disasters which accompany almost every airshow. So guys, I’m against the maneuvers and inadequate planning/maintenance at these shows. Show off under pressure to perform is a Devil. Have your shows but no low flying or stunts by any planes other than those built for it. Especially not over spectators.

  • I know we are preaching to the choir, but Bill Whittle sums it up the best. I’m all for squashing the idiots that want to take our freedoms and airshows and ship them out of the country. Let the airshows continue and YOU decide if you wish to go or not.

    See the following and forward it to any one that wants to cancel airshows:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCBbosq9-RI

  • Before the trim tab separated the tail wheel dropped down. It came down just after Ghost passed Rare Bear. Tail shake at 500 mph happens and is aggravated by turbulence.
    The 9G pitch up after the tab separated from the elevator will cause anyone to become unconscious without a G-suit.
    An aircraft originally designed and tested for approximately 1560 HP needs to have flutter and vibration tests if a 3600HP engine is installed. The FAA does not require the same level of testing for Experimental/Exhibition & Air Racing as it does for a comparable aircraft certified in Standard Category in accordance with 14CFR 23.
    Seems like it’s time for the FAA to take their heads out of the sand when major changes can result in loss of life.
    The blogger who suggested putting the crowd on the inside of the track has the best idea I’ve seen yet for race fan safety.

    • Gene, all that you say is true, however, after working with the FAA bureaucracy for 42 years, I have observed and experienced their operations closely. The fact of the matter is they will not act unless forced to act i.e. unless enough people die to force them to change something. While the loss of life at Reno is regrettable
      it is but a blip in the carnage that takes place in the US from other activities that citizens daily participate in.

  • I don’t have enough in formation so I’m only expressing an opinion based on my 9.5 years experience as in the Air Aircraft maintenance field.

  • Many good comments here. Some not so accurate. The fact is, the trim tab come off the plane, and we do not know why. The fact is, this created an immediate unexpected and uncommanded “pitch up” of such severity, maybe 10 or 11 G’s or more, that Mr. Leeward blacked out very quickly, if not perhaps also injured by his helmeted head being thrown violently into solid objects of the cocpit environment. Add together the weight of your head and a helmet and multiply by 10…then ask yourself if your neck can withstand that number of pounds of force unexpectedly and suddenly applied. A younger man would have suffered the same result. Even full forward stick at that moment may not have been enough to catch it and overcome the pitch up, and would have required extremely difficult forward stick pressure in any case. Mr. Leeward was incapacitated very very quickly, and unable to respond. This was a mechanical failure, and Mr. Leewards’ age was not a factor. He was an excellent skilled pilot who was denied by fate the opportunity to save himself, others, and his aircraft. To those who say we should not be flying these planes, or racing planes, I say, be careful of….. 1. getting in and out of your bathtub, or 2. creating a government with the power to deny our freedom to fly planes.

  • My friends and I have a box at Reno: Box A-40. You can see our box banner in most of the pictures of the impact site. For you aircraft enthusiasts, our banner is in the shape and color of the upper wing of a 1940’s Stearman PT-17. The letters “S.O.B.” stand for “Stearman Owners Box.” If you’ve seen the pictures, you know that we were about 20 feet from the impact point… even closer when considering Jimmy’s wing tip. Several of our box members are pilots. Two of us are flight instructors. All of us are air race fans. Our box members remained in Reno the next day, and we were in contact with RARA offering our assistance in any way we could be of service. This was my 38th year at Reno and most of my friends have been attending for well over a decade. Over the years, we’ve witnessed aircraft incidents at the races. However, during 38 years of attending, it became clear to me that the media was in attendance hoping for the ‘scoop’… the ‘sensational story”… hoping to be the “first to report” … especially if a fatality was involved. In fact, I’m sure you all experienced some example such as this: my sister in Washington state, called me at Reno and indicated that the press announced some “75 deaths at Reno.” In a time of media-driven fashions, politics, and personal opinion, it’s time that they are called on their perverse practice of “reporting.” I applaud those who have done so. However, unfortunately, the press is not always interested in the truth. Some years ago I called a local TV station about their erroneous reporting regarding a crash at Santa Monica airport. They found my credentials and input interesting, however, they weren’t interested in making the “correction.” Best regards to all of you.. and Box A-40 will be in attendance this year!

    • I was wondering how many people were in attendance at the Air Races on this blog…I have Box A67 Flyin’ Lo Racing Team, about 100 feet from the impact…

      I was slightly injured by debris during the crash, but a few stitches took care of it–any injuries in your box?

      • Tom: good to hear from you. I thank God that your injuries were slight. Fortunately, no one in my box was injured. Apparently, the compression pushed most of us to the ground. My wife and I watched Jimmy nearly to impact. However, there were severed arms and legs in the box next to us. We saw the last micro-second change in flight path which moved the impact point from us to some 20 feet away. If the races are on this year…. and if you attend, please drop by A-40 and we’ll chat.

        • AJ glad to hear you guys were okay that close to the impact! I think what happened to us was some of the material that was thrown up by the impact came down on us. There was four of us in the box at the time and my son got hit but not hurt, my wife was not hit and Jeff Lo was not hit. Just my luck to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time…

          We had plenty of time to prepare, knew what was going to happen and we all hit the deck. I was looking at carpet when the impact happened.

          I’ll look you up in September! I guess we will know what is going on after to tomorrow!

          Take care…

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