Tragedy at Reno

What it was like in the pits that day

Jimmy Leeward and The Galloping Ghost at the 2010 Reno air races. David Peters

Within minutes of the crash at the national air races on Friday, which took pilot Jimmy Leeward’s life, killed ten spectators, and injured dozens more, the word in the Reno pits was “trim tab.” Some people said they had seen something depart the aft end of the Galloping Ghost, Leeward’s intensely modified Mustang, on its third lap, just after it banked around the last pylon and headed down the east-west straightaway that runs in front of the stands. NTSB investigators appear to have recovered the part—it would have landed far from the crater where the rest of the airplane disintegrated on impact. Some people remembered that it had been the loss of a trim tab that caused a fatal crash at the races in 1999, when Gary Levitz lost control of his Mustang Miss Ashley II. Some mentioned Voodoo Chile in ’98. Pilot Bob Hannah blacked out after the loss of an elevator trim tab pitched his Mustang up. Hannah regained consciousness and landed safely.

In the pits Friday afternoon, small groups formed, dispersed, and re-formed, trying to make sense of what had just happened. If it had been a trim tab, did Jimmy have a warning? Is that why we saw him first depart the course in a gradual climb to the north? Was he wrestling for control before we saw that sickening lurch upward? We knew right away from the violence of the pitch-up that control forces were flying the airplane, not the pilot. Under the force of the Gs, Jimmy would have lost consciousness, the pilots among us said. But what of the path the airplane followed up over the grandstands, then backward over the top of the climb and down toward the field? Who or what was in charge of that? Some of us, not pilots, wondered if Jimmy was trying to get the airplane back toward the infield, away from the fans. How he spent the last few seconds in the cockpit is probably not something the NTSB will find.

A couple of hours before Leeward climbed into the Ghost for the last time, Air & Space photo editor Caroline Sheen and I had hopped a ride on his golf cart. “Wanna see the airplane?” he had shouted. He was proud of it. Proud of its history and certain of its potential. Riding along, he told us how the Ghost got its name: In the 1940s when owners Bruce Raymond and Steve Beville raced it at the nationals in Cleveland, they named it in honor of running back Red Grange. Grange was a national celebrity, famous for slipping though tacklers as though he were invisible, which earned him the nickname “Galloping Ghost.” Back then the Ghost still looked like a P-51. But Leeward and his team removed its signature air scoop from the fuselage, and substituted a cooling system that bathed the radiators in an anti-detonation fluid. The system had been developed by Reno legend Pete Law, a thermodynamicist who surmised, as we all stood looking toward the site of impact and not seeing fire or smoke, that the fluid had doused any flame. He told us that a friend who had been standing a hundred feet away had been splashed by the stuff.

In the few minutes we talked to Leeward, he told us he was very happy with the way the Ghost was running. He was eager to race, and thought he could move up in the ranks during Friday’s qualifier. He was battling for third when things started to go bad. That night we pulled out the T-shirts he had given us. The words that had been so hopeful that day had turned ghastly. On the back, “The Galloping Ghost” Returns; on the front, Fear the Ghost.

There will be discussions in the coming weeks and months about whether the air races should continue, about whether, despite the racing association’s famously extreme emphasis on safety, airplanes flying at nearly 500 mph only 50 feet off the ground within several hundred feet of the fans can ever be safe. Since a spectator had not been injured in the 47 years that airplanes have raced at Reno, we had all forgotten the “at-your-own-risk” nature of attendance printed on every admission ticket.

What do you think?  What will happen to air racing in this country, and what should happen?

Linda Shiner is the editor of Air&Space.

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