On September 16, 2011, the pilot of a highly modified WW2 P-51D airplane crashed at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. The tragic accident saw the plane known as the "Galloping Ghost" crash into the box seat spectator area, killing the pilot and 10 spectators, with 60 others injured. Now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has provided an update on its investigation into the much publicized incident.
As a result of the investigation so far, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman revealed that the agency had prepared a total of seven safety recommendations designed to make the National Championship Air Races safer, for both competitors and spectators.
"We are not here to put a stop to air racing," said Hersman. "We are here to make it safer."
The items addressed include racecourse design and layout, pre-race technical inspections, aircraft modifications and airworthiness, the effects of g-forces on pilots, and even the Federal Aviation Administration's own (FAA) guidance on air racing. These recommendations have been presented to the organizations responsible for the Reno event - the FAA, the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA), and the National Air-Racing Group Unlimited Division.
Changes to race layout
The high number of fatalities focused the committee’s attention on the race layout in particular. The unlimited course is designed for an average speed of 500 mph (800 km/h) and the final turn places the competing aircraft in line with the spectator area. It seems an obvious problem, and a change to the layout has been recommended to avoid the possibility of an out-of-control aircraft continuing on into the crowd.
Extensive performance mods a concern
An area highlighted during the investigation was the extensive modifications made to the unlimited class aircraft and the lack of documentation and official inspection associated with them. For example, the aircraft involved in the accident under investigation had modifications reducing the WW2 fighter’s wing span from about 37 feet to about 29 feet along with significant changes to the flight controls and a smaller canopy – all designed to increase straight line speed and rate of turn around the pylons. These unlimited class racers are commonly ex-WW2 fighter planes powered by hotted-up 27 liter (1656 ci) V-12s and over 54 liter (3350 ci) 18-cylinder radials producing over 3000 horsepower, with all the sound and fury that one would expect from the fastest motorsport in the world. With it comes the danger from something going wrong, and the investigation showed that the accident started with an upset whilst turning between pylon 8 and 9. This resulted in the separation of the left elevator trim tab some six seconds later. Video footage taken by spectators indicated that the sudden onset of g force led to the pilot "blacking out" as the aircraft zoomed upwards before diving into the crowd, which correlates the findings from telemetry onboard that showed that during the upset; the airplane exceeded the accelerometer's 9-g limit.
Another point that came out of the investigation is that whilst the pilot was highly experienced, neither he nor the modified aircraft had flown the course at that speed previously.
"We are issuing a safety recommendation to ensure that pilots and their modified airplanes are put through their paces prior to race day." This makes sense, but many teams save their fragile beasts for race day, so it may be difficult to enforce.
Source: NTSB (follow the links at the bottom of this page to view the full list of safety recommendations)