NTSB Rules on Cause of Air Races Crash
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Photo: Julia Kirchenbauer
At a hearing Monday morning in Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board issued findings of its investigation into the fatal crash at last year's National Championship Air Races.
NTSB investigators say screws in the modified P-51 Mustang's elevator trim tabs - those are flaps that help stabilize the aircraft - were too loose and showed years of wear, causing one of the tabs to break lose under the stress of flying more than 400 miles an hour.
That caused pilot Jimmy Leeward to lose control and he lost consciousness within seconds because of a sudden spike in G forces before the aircraft crashed into the stands at last September's event, killing the pilot and ten others, and injuring more than 60.
The problem was noted in a pre-race inspection just days prior, but there's nothing to confirm it was ever fixed. As a result, the Reno Air Racing Association, after its own investigation, is making changes to its inspection process to try and make sure nothing like that slips through the cracks again.
Air Race Spokesman Mike Draper said the investigation validates the changes the organization is making, to - as he put it - institutionalize the culture of safety he feels was already present at the event.
"And with that comes even better documentation of inspections. And even better documentations and better chain of command on how inspections have been addressed or issues have been addressed," Draper said. "And really formalizing -- even further than it has been. And make no mistake. It's been a formal process but even further formalizing it and standardizing the inspection process. That is something we're working on."
And since the accident, the organization has added a Director of Safety to its board.
The investigation also showed there was no verification that some modifications to the aircraft were adequately flight-tested. The plane had never been pushed to these limits before.
"The data showed that the accident flight was the fastest the airplane had ever flown on the course by about 35 knots," Investigator Clint Crookshanks said. "And the engine power settings were the highest ever used."
Today's hearing was particularly damning of the pilot and crew. Investigators said photos from prior races on the course - and the race where the accident occurred - showed deformations in the plane's skin and the cockpit canopy.
"All of these factors provide strong clues to the pilot and crew that the airplane was being operated beyond its structural limits and should have forced a more detailed examination of the airplane," Crookshanks said.
Board member Robert Sumwalt had more harsh terms for it.
"And the way I look at it quite honestly is if you're modifying an airplane without fully understanding how those modifications can affect the aerodynamics then you're basically just playing Russian roulette with an aircraft," he said. "And if you want to go out and fly and fly fast and try and win that's one thing. But as the chairman said, unlike Russian roulette, in this case when you go out and you do those things you not only endanger your own life, but you potentially endanger the lives of others. And that is what happened in this particular case."
Today's findings will no doubt play a role in several lawsuits filed by victims and families. Air race organizers have established a $77 million fund for victims and families to be administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, who oversaw a similar fund for victims of the Sept. 11th terror attacks.
NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman said the accident should affect how participants think about risks involved in air racing.
"The pilots know that they are taking risks. That is what they sign up for," she said. "But air race pilots expects that the risks taken are theirs alone. This accident forced everyone to re-evaluate that expectation."
Last week, the NTSB released more than a thousand pages of documents on its investigation. Read the Documents
KUNR will have a reaction from the Reno Air Racing Association later in the day.