Air Show Crash Pilot Likely Incapacitated: NTSB

NTSB produced a graphic showing how significantly Leeward’s plane had been modified from its original design to increase its speed.

Jimmy Leeward, the 74-year-old stunt pilot who was at the controls when a modified P-51D airplane crashed into the spectator area during the National Championship Air Races last September in Reno, Nev., probably was incapacitated seconds before impact. Leeward had not previously flown his Galloping Ghost aircraft at that speed on that course, NTSB Chair Deborah A.P. Hersman said.

Following the agency's April 10 briefing in Reno, the site of the September 2011 crash, NTSB said evidence "indicates that both the airplane and pilot experienced an unanticipated, rapid onset of high g-forces and appears to support pilot incapacitation."

"We are issuing a safety recommendation to ensure that pilots and their modified airplanes are put through their paces prior to race day," Hersman said.

Telemetry data indicate Leeward's plane exceeded the accelerometer's 9-G limit six seconds before the plane's left elevator trim tab separated from the aircraft, which caused the crash.

NTSB produced a graphic showing how significantly Leeward's plane had been modified from its original design. Its wingspan was reduced from 37 feet to 29 feet and "significant changes" were made to its flight controls, both to increase its speed, according to NTSB, which said extensive modifications are typical for airplanes raced in the unlimited class, but there is a lack of documentation and inspection associated with those modifications.

Leeward died in the Sept. 16, 2011, crash, as did 10 spectators. More than 60 spectators were injured. One NTSB recommendation to the Reno Air Racing Association is to review the current Reno race course and consider changing it so spectators will be less exposed to the planes.

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