Al Marsh

Reno Unlimited air racer crashes; eight died at the scene, three more in hospitals

September 16, 2011 by Alton K. Marsh, Senior Editor, AOPA Pilot

Galloping Ghost, a highly modified and restored North American P-51 Mustang, crashed during an Unlimited category qualifying heat at the National Championship Air Races in Reno. The 500-mph aircraft is operated by the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team of Ocala, Florida, and piloted by movie stunt pilot and real estate developer Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Florida.

A YouTube video of the crash was shown on local Reno television station KRNV, the NBC affiliate, in this report. There were more than 60 people treated at hospitals, many of them released. The aircraft crashed 65 feet in front of a box-seat area on flat tarmac in front of the grandstands. A photo shows the area where the aircraft crashed.

The death toll has reached 11, including the pilot and seven spectators at Reno/Stead Airport and three at a local hospital.

Jimmy Leeward describes in this YouTube video the five years of work done to prepare Galloping Ghost for the air races.

UPDATES: A photo of the aircraft just prior to impact raised speculation that perhaps something came off the tail’s horizontal control surfaces. A video offering a different view has appeared on CNN showing the airplane inverted prior to the crash.

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21 Responses to “Reno Unlimited air racer crashes; eight died at the scene, three more in hospitals”

  1. brian Says:

    why are people still allowed to fly rust bucket aircraft from 70 years ago? this is almost manslaughter! we should outlaw all public airshows…. is this really an aircraft issue or is it pilot error? either way this was a 100% preventable crash. this was NOTanaccident!

  2. Eric Says:

    Brian, you may stay in your padded cell if you don’t want to take any risks. But don’t presume to have the government tell me what risks I can and can not take. My sympathies to those injured at the Air Races…

  3. Shannon Says:

    Brian, reel in your emotion and ignorance. This particular aircraft was featured in an article recently and if you had done some research you would have known that it is far from a “rust bucket aircraft from 70 years ago”. There was hardly a part on the aircraft that wasn’t completely rebuilt. Also, aircraft in the Unlimited class at Reno are about as stock as a NASCAR racer so the age of the aircraft has nothing to do with the age of the design. So instead of casting stones from your high pedestal, how about having some respect and dignity.

  4. Dave Stanley Says:

    The Galloping Ghost was not a rust bucket. It is one of the best aircraft ever built. It played a very signifigant role in winning WWII. The few Mustangs left are worth more than a million dollars each. Jimmy Leeward was (I hope still is) a superior pilot. Racing is a way to experiment and improve aircraft and auto power plants and other related equipment and will continue. To suggest less is an expression of ignorance.

  5. John Gelbert Says:

    Brian, you are an ignorant individual and should do some research before you go mouthing off about something you know nothing about!!! These aircrafts are hardly “rust buckets” as you claim, but rather very expensive and very well maintained planes. This was the airplane that allowed the US to win WWll and the pilots that fly them today are extremely qualified individuals.

  6. Bob Kaldahl Says:

    Brian, Unfortunately your ignorance in obvious. The aircraft you so vividly describe as rust buckets would beyond a doubt most likely put your vehicle to shame when it comes to serviceability and safety. These aircraft along with their pilots represent the utmost in technology in the sport in which they compete. These aircraft can be likened to the top racing automobiles that compete on tracks around the world every year.

    Please, in the future do some research. Go look at one of these “Rust Buckets” and then with a bit of enlightenment and knowledge state your case.

    To the Family and Friends of Jimmy Leeward my wife and I express our Deepest Sympathy. I remember watching him in his Galloping Ghost a few times. God Bless and Fair Skies Jimmy, It’s always clear on Top!

  7. Charlie Sims Says:

    It was the pilot was the rust bucket! 80 years old and flying over the crowd. I won’t even want him in the car in the next lane of the freeway.

  8. Kyaw Tha Paw U Says:

    1) He was 74 not 80. Fine pilot by all accounts.
    2) One still photo seems to show a trailing edge piece missing from the port horizontal stabilizer, I’m not familiar enough with the P-51 to know if it’s a trim tab or part of the elevator. Seems to indicate mechanical failure then, if this was a primary failure (and not secondary result of aerodynamic forces from a different primary failure or other cause). Or could be a photo perspective issue? At those speeds, G-forces, and a sharp bank could be an issue.
    posted 2259 PDT
    3) Condolences to the pilot’s family and friends, and same to the family and friends of the bystanders who passed away.

  9. Kyaw Tha Paw U Says:

    Ok, just found out at the Lahontan Valley News site that their assigned reporter/stringer? Tim O’Brien took the still photos, and he noticed the missing “slot”,he says its a missing trim tab, and feels that caused the loss of control.
    An interesting issue, probably lighting and angle leading to reflection?, can’t see the pilot in either of the posted photos although the canopy is clearly visible.
    posted 23:40 PDT

  10. Kyaw Tha Paw U Says:

    Here’s a quick hypothesis– if it was the trim tab failure. It happens during the high-G, high aerodynamic force left-hand turn, elevators up for the high bank turn, then port trim tab of stabilizer falls off from some form of mechanical failure under high aerodynamic forces. This would cause initial roll to the right out of the tight left turn, and as approaching neutral in terms of roll, blending into an upward trajectory, pitch up as if signaling May Day. Continued roll and upward flight path would invert the P-51 as it’s going almost straight up now, potentially losing air speed to stall and pitching or yawing into a vertical dive, or alternatively continuing to roll, pitch, and corkscrewing/looping into a vertical dive (not to clear about this part!). These possibilities (May Day climb out, inverted flight, possible stall, dive) seem consistent with at least one video and some witness reports. Of course, this doesn’t account for pilot input in reaction to all of this, unclear what this very experienced pilot might have tried under the sudden unexpected roll and climb, but the last portion of the dive shows little or no roll in the video so there could have been some pilot aileron input to stop the roll by that time. Very little time for any corrective action solutions with the speed and altitude constraints, probably almost impossible to react perfectly or maybe no solutions were available anyway with the constraints.

    Just a highly speculative hypothesis!
    0056 PDT

  11. Mike Says:

    1) Trim tab had to be under enough force to fail. That means it was either pushing the elevator up hard or down hard.

    2) Without the trim tab, this means its the pilot pushing or pulling, probably with less force than the metal failure point on the trim tab.

    3) The airplane appears to have then pitched up from the video I saw (incomplete). Assuming the pilot couldn’t force the nose down and with the minimal roll control on the cut down ailerons, he could have ended in a loop which intersected the group. With insufficient force in his muscles to overcome the pitch it could have gone straight for the ground.

    4) Alternative hypothesis is that it stalled again from the broken trim pitch.

    Tough break on an experimental racer. Can’t blame anyone — that’s what air racing is.


  12. Kyaw Tha Paw U Says:

    Update: On CNN’s site, there’s a telling video by David Wilson that is consistent with my previous speculative hypothesis ( You can see the right roll out of the turn, to inverted, but now it looks more clear that at inverted flight, aileron input probably counteracts the roll, maybe elevators still up so now the inverted P-51 is curving towards a pitch attitude pointed to the ground, going down vertically with not enough altitude to pull it off for a full recovery. A potentially successful (but a gamble since one isn’t sure what the cause of the roll is) recovery mode might have been to continue the roll at the inverted almost level flight condition (hard to tell from the video, but looks like pitched up (relative to the aircraft) towards the ground maybe 20 degrees angle, inverted flight), with elevators put to neutral, and then once the roll has continued to horizontal attitude normal flight mode, gently pull up on the stick to level flight for the pitch recovery (still countering the asymmetric roll response from the elevators with aileron control) —but that would presuppose in the fraction of second for reactions, if one somehow instantly knew the initial severe roll anomaly was caused by port elevator damage causing asymmetric response to elevator input. And this would risk, if unsuccessful and still pitched downwards after roll recovery, of crashing into a potentially populated area beyond the air race space. Anyway, one’s first instinct would be to counteract the unexpected roll with ailerons, and the elevators might still be up from the tight left turn if you’re focusing on the roll counteraction, so if inverted when the roll anomaly was halted and elevators still partly up, you’re headed towards the ground now with no altitude for successful recovery. If this was at thousands of feet altitude, might have pulled an inverted loop recovery off, with continued aileron input to counter the roll induced from asymmetric elevator output, for elevator up input. The O’Brien still photos seem to indicate aileron position countering the postulated roll anomaly from the possibly damaged elevator. Again, I qualify that this is highly speculative at this point, the NTSB should do their job and we’ll know more then.

  13. Franklin Ratliff Says:

    The disaster at Reno is not the first time that racing officials have had to consider whether keeping a motorsport on its present course is a path to extinction. Unlimited hydroplane racing went through it. Top Fuel drag boat racing went through it. NASCAR went through it. The result was organizers were forced to admit fundamental change could no longer be avoided, and to give creative people and inventive engineers and scientists the opportunity to introduce innovations that changed the direction of the sport.

    In the case of Unlimited hydroplanes and Top Fuel drag boats, the introduction of enclosed cockpits and driver capsules were innovations that turned all the existing boats into museum relics, but saved the sport. With NASCAR, it was introducing seats and head restraints that brought safety practices up to modern standards.

    Just as the era of open cockpit hydroplanes and drag boats passed, the era of Unlimited racers as we know them has passed. I see a future for Unlimited air racing. I do not see a place for WWII airframes in that future. Unlimited air racing will be a lot safer with airplanes that are built from scratch to go 500 mph.

    Aside from the project to rebuild Tsunami, other airplanes that can be considered as prototypes for future Unlimited racers are David Rose’s RP-4 and the Pond Racer (although in the case of the Pond Racer I think that project might have developed with less trouble if they’d used a pair of big block Chevys). Just as Unlimited hydroplanes moved away from WWII piston engines to gas turbines, I believe there is also a place for turbines in Unlimited air racing. If Unlimited air racing can be made more affordable without sacrificing performance, this could lead to growth that brings in new teams and bigger fields.

  14. Richard Says:

    There is an eerily similar mishap referenced on the Galloping Ghost Wiki.

    “On September 17, 2011, it was reported that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was examining whether the loss of a component of the tail played a role in the crash of the Galloping Ghost aircraft.[14] News reports included a photograph taken right before the crash while the airplane was inverted show a missing left elevator trim tab.[15][16] In 1998, the left trim tab was lost during the Reno Air Races by a modified P-51 Mustang named the Voodoo Chile. The 1998 incident did not lead to a crash but pilot “Hurricane” Bob Hannah reported that when the elevator trim tab came off during the race, the airplane pitched up and subjected him to over 10 G’s deceleration and a loss of consciousness. When the pilot regained consciousness, the plane had climbed to over 9,000 feet of altitude. In the 1998 incident, the pilot was able to bring the damaged plane in for a safe landing. [17][18]”

    The above is quoted from the 2011 Reno Air Races Crash Section.

    One also has to wonder if the aircraft required a lot of elevator trim because of an aft CG condition due to the weight and placement of water/alcohol mixture used in the boil off cooling system.

    It is noted that eye witnesses have said that the pilot’s head was not visible in the canopy during the last moments of flight. That would be consistent with the prior incident.

    In its military configuration, the P-51 was reputed to be a difficult aircraft to maneuver before fuel in the aft fuel tank was burned off (because of the aft CG condition.

  15. Robert Leavitt Says:

    A friend once asked me why I don’t go to the air races. Testing experimental aircraft is something that should not be done above crowds. Perhaps, the loads on the stabilizers of a unique airframe upon which the principal drag/vortex generation features has been removed is an open question. I seen enough aircraft loses and lost enough friends during essential operations for a lifetime, so I don’t need this. Killing nice people is not good for aviation in general.

  16. Chuck Lennox Says:

    Loss of trim tab. Pitch up. Pilot “Gs out” Pilot is not in any pics after pitch up. Also why is tail wheel down? Plane just goes wants. No one flying. Just my 2 cents

  17. CraigB Says:

    Not allegations, but questions: From text of Leeward’s pre-race video, it seemed that he HAD NOT tested the plane on the race course at race speeds after extensive modifications-True? This would be UNTHINKABLE for any form of open rules auto racing. Change the rules imho. Did someone do an aero and load (engineering) analysis on the loads the tail and trim tab would experience, post-mods? Probably should have if not-another suggested requirement.

  18. Franklin Ratliff Says:

    Rules change was so the warbird clique could maintain the status quo, not for safety.

  19. Paul Lim Says:

    This video is very shocking to me. I am currently studying for my Private Pilot License and
    these things are really making me develop a fear of flying these days. One of my dad’s friends who is also a pilot student (CPL), crashed during a solo flight in training. And then soon after, I hear about this crash…it is really making me scared to fly.

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    AOPA Pilot Blog: Reporting Points » Blog Archive » Reno Unlimited air racer crashes; eight died at the scene, three more in hospitals

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