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NTSB Has Recorded Data of Reno Crash

Air race tragedy kills EAA Director Jimmy Leeward and nine others

By J. Mac McClellan, Director of Publications, EAA 747337

Jimmy Leeward
Jimmy Leeward in Galloping Ghost. EAA Photo

September 19, 2011 – The NTSB announced that it had recovered electronic memory data cards that may have been on board the modified P-51 flown by EAA Director Jimmy Leeward that crashed at the Reno Air Races last Friday. The data cards may contain important information on the attitude, airspeed, and other performance measurements recorded just before the airplane impacted a spectator seating area near the main grandstand.

The NTSB has also found fragments of a video camera that was mounted in the airplane looking out. Electronic data memory cards were recovered in the vicinity of the camera fragments and the Board has begun to review the cards to see if any are from the camera that was on the airplane.

The NTSB has also confirmed that Leeward’s Galloping Ghost team had a telemetry system that transmitted certain data to the ground in real time while the airplane was in flight. The Board has already recovered those data which include engine operating parameters, plus GPS-derived position, altitude, and velocity. The NTSB believes the data received via telemetry during flight will be the same as recorded on a data card in the airplane.

Leeward was one of the most experienced Reno racers and has competed regularly since 1975. His Mustang, named Galloping Ghost, had been modified to a shorter wingspan and a smaller canopy, among other changes designed to reduce drag and increase speed.

Last Friday afternoon, as Leeward turned toward the home straight, his airplane pitched violently upward. The Mustang then briefly rolled almost level before dropping a wing and plunging to the ground.

Immediately following the accident, three people including Leeward were confirmed dead. Over the weekend it was determined that a total of 10 died in the accident, and there were many injuries. It is possible the death toll will grow as more victims are identified.

Photos and video of the accident sequence show the trim tab on the left elevator breaking loose, and then departing. The NTSB confirmed that it is examining those photos and reported that portions of the tail section had been recovered. The Board would not speculate about the significance of the apparent failure of the trim tab or confirm it has recovered the trim tab.

Because so many spectators were photographing and videoing the race the NTSB has an unusually large visual documentation of the accident sequence. The Board reported that it had collected many images of the final seconds of the accident flight and has begun to study them at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Several EAA staff members, including President and CEO Rod Hightower, were at the Reno-Stead airport when the accident happened, but all escaped injury.

Hightower had a clear view of the accident sequence, along with several other very experienced pilots including Reno race pilot veterans. All agreed that they saw the trim tab depart followed by the immediate and drastic pitch up. The witnesses also agreed that the airplane “unloaded” at the top of its zoom and then rolled off into a dive. The Mustang changed trajectory as it accelerated in the dive, causing it to miss the main grandstand for which it was initially headed.

Among the many photos of the accident sequence is a very clear shot of the Mustang headed down with no pilot visible in the small canopy.

On Saturday following the tragedy Hightower relayed the following message from the Leeward family: “We are praying for everyone affected by this tragedy. Jimmy was doing what he loved. The air races were what he lived for. He has made many close friends in the aviation world and many of you are standing here this morning. He had a passion for racing and as many of you know, he dreamed of winning the Gold. He loved all of you and looked forward to seeing you every year. Thank you all for your condolences and prayers.”

Jimmy was a longtime EAA member and served as a director for more than 20 years. He grew up in an aviation family. His father, Al, bought and sold airplanes, maintained them, flew charter, and did just about any other task required to create an aviation business.

Jimmy became a successful real estate developer but remained immersed in the world of aviation, with a special passion for warbirds. He lived in Ocala, Florida, where he created the Leeward Air Ranch, a residential pilot community built around the most perfectly maintained sod runway imaginable.

Plans for a memorial service for Jimmy are being finalized.

The remainder of the Reno Air Race events were canceled following the accident. The NTSB said it expected to have its onsite investigation completed by today, Monday, so that Reno-Stead could again resume operations. The Board, following its normal policy, said a “preliminary” report on the crash will be posted on its site by Friday, five working days after the accident. Preliminary reports are limited to a summary of information the NTSB has confirmed at that time and never speculate or hint at a probable cause for the accident.

The NTSB typically requires a year or more to complete an investigation; the earliest possible final report is many months away.

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