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NTSB provides update on Reno air-race crash investigation

By

April 10, 2012

The 'Galloping Ghost' prior to the fateful crash

The 'Galloping Ghost' prior to the fateful crash

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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.

Recommendations

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.

Changes to course layout have been recommended by the NTSB

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.

Performance modifications played a role in the accident

Pilot preparation

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)

About the Author
Martin Hone Martin spent 17 years as road and track tester for Australian Motorcycle News and has raced motorcycles for over 40 years, picking up an Australian Championship in 1993 in the Unlimited Class Historic. An aircraft builder and experienced recreational pilot, he currently operates a test flight and maintenance facility, owns a Ducati 1000 and a Buell 1200 … and writes for Gizmag.   All articles by Martin Hone
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13 Comments

How about simply requiring a warning on tickets and advertisements that watching air racing carries inherent risk.

Slowburn
10th April, 2012 @ 07:46 pm PDT

sad that I hear the investigation results of an Airshow accident that took place in the USA on an Aussie website, nothing here is the USA in the filtered news media, Slowburn.. gotta agree, some shows involve RISK you want to see things up close and personal, there is risk, I agree with your comment.

Bill Bennett
10th April, 2012 @ 09:49 pm PDT

I read an interesting speculation that the seat back had collapsed in the high G race turns. The pilot was not visible in the canopy during the crash footage.. since they are strapped in tight, he should have been visible, conscious or not. Also detailing the aircraft trajectory as matching how an aircraft might react with those sort of control inputs as the pilot falls backwards.

j-stroy
10th April, 2012 @ 09:50 pm PDT

Yeah heaps of good videos on Youtube - "Vrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmm "SMACK" - a cloud of dust and smoke and a million bits of gravel and shrapnel...

"Ooooooo that was quick!"

I am always amazed that if a FAST vehicle is going to leave a track - it's almost never going to happen when running in a straight line, and the crowd is parallel to, and set back from the track; but where does the crowd like to sit?

Piled up around the corner where the car is most likely to go, when it goes around the corner, which is the time and place that it is most likely to go spearing off the track......

There are places around the race track I like to stay and others I don't.

So to have the aircraft going LOW and FAST - past the crowd - I mean it's RACING........ While shit does not happen, it's hard being on top of all the fine little details and unforeseen circumstances and combinations there of.... and things do happen.

I just find that the air craft ought to have space to turn and then straighten out and then go past the crowd, rather than taking a path, that if something does go wrong - it takes them in the direction of the crowd.

I also liked the videos that show that happens when you get an aircraft at high speed, low altitude and some kind of epic failure does occur...... No room for error.

Sad... but at least it was quick.

Mr Stiffy
11th April, 2012 @ 06:43 am PDT

I do a lot of rally racing/spectating/organizing and you know, things that should be obvious just don't make it through the brains of some people, and I don't understand why.

That course (this is the first time I've seen it) should have been ruled out at the beginning - as j-stroy said, vehicles follow a (mostly) straight vector when something happens so anything (ANYTHING) that went wrong after pylon 7 and the home pylon was going to affect spectators. You NEVER put spectators/bystanders/innocents outside of a high-speed turn (or even, in rally, a low speed turn - it is possible to hook a tire and have a car go over and out) - it should always be INSIDE the turn (physics say it's nearly impossible for things to go IN) or along the straight.

And to Slowburn - you're half right. I agree that people need to realize that racing events carry an element of risk, but the organizers of this event have little excuse - with this course design, an accident like this was foreseeable and could have been prevented/mitigated with very little impact on the race.

socalboomer
11th April, 2012 @ 09:13 am PDT

I think that if the audience is placed closer to pylon 7, there is a far lower chance of a plane crashing into it...they would have enough time to straighten out at that point, and if they did mess up and have to crash they'd probably have enough time to steer away from the crowd...

Will Sharp
11th April, 2012 @ 09:26 am PDT

I am a photo/journalist and was covering the race from the No. 2 pylon when the accident happened. The race planes were on a path parallel to the crowd and a considerable distance from the crowd when things went awry. I have always felt that the race planes were located too far from the stands to keep it interesting but this is from a guy who likes being at the pylons when they come whizzing by at 400 mph. Moving the course further away from the stands might not make that much difference at the speed that these birds travel. There is always going to be a degree of risk and most people that attend know that. My heart goes out to the victims and their families but most of them would want things to continue despite the risk.

James P Pratt
11th April, 2012 @ 09:38 am PDT

"Two mistakes high." That's a common saying for pilots, especially when learning to fly, even for radio controlled model aircraft.

If you screw up, you have twice the altitude you need to recover. After getting back to stable flight, climb back to two mistakes high altitude before you try again what you screwed up.

Gregg Eshelman
11th April, 2012 @ 09:49 am PDT

Jimmy Leeward was 74.

Bob "Hurricane" Hannah,the famous motocross rider,

took up Unlimted racing and also blacked out once but came to a few thousand feet UP instead of down.

I'm not saying anything bad about Jimmy.

It's just that there's no way the FAA would allow passengers for hire under such dangerous

conditions(these plus the ones already discussed)-

so why allow spectators underneath?

Racing over the water is safer.

If we're going to do this why not bring back Boardtrack racing?

Look it up.

Griffin
11th April, 2012 @ 10:37 am PDT

I was there in the grandstands, about 120' from the crash site. The race course shape and proximity had no direct determination of the crash site for this particular accident. The Ghost went vertical just after pylon 8, did a 1/4 roll while going straght up, slowed down due to a less than 1:1 hp to weight ratio. Then it did a 1/4 loop to the inverted, heading towards and beyond the crowd 1/2 mile from the crash site. Then it did another 1/4 loop to the near vertical decent, both travelling back towards the crowd and towards show center. The plane travelled for 10 seconds at 400+mph (1.11 miles) with effectively a random destination. The crowd would have to be more than a mile away to have been out of this particular danger zone.

From the moment the plane went vertical, the pilot had no further awareness. While some have speculated that the pilot heroically caused the nose up that avoided me in the grandstands and even more loss of life, the high speed nose up control that sent the plane vertically in the first place was the only thing that saved my bacon.

The audience cannot sit inside the course, as that is the emergency landing area and must remain free of whoffo's. Also all pilots know that landing inside will not injure the non-spectators in the nearby town. Pilots are first at risk, crowd is 2nd, and the townfolks need to be a distant 3rd. There have been plenty of pilots who never again left the infield. Only a handful have ever hit outside the track.

Also with the crowd inside, they could not see 4/5'ths of the course. Watching air races from your couch doesn't do it justice.

And yes, I already have tickets for the next race.

Bill Watson
11th April, 2012 @ 12:30 pm PDT

Funny thing about racing, and that is that all eventualities cannot be predicted. There was that tragic accident at Phillip Island when Gregg Hansford hit the INSIDE barrier at Turn One, and more recently when Simoncelli lowsided his MotoGP Honda yet speared off into the INSIDE of the turn and got cleaned up by other riders. No one wants to see anyone get hurt, spectator or competitor, but there is a trade-off when it comes to high-speed motorsport. From what I have read, 'Hurricane' Hannah's incident was caused by the same problem that took out Leeward. Just lucky.........

Spacewalker
11th April, 2012 @ 06:23 pm PDT

re; socalboomer

When a car leaves controlled driving it goes ballistic.

when a plane leaves controlled flight you don't know where it will go.

Statistically you are safer in the stands than in your car on the way to the race.

Slowburn
11th April, 2012 @ 07:00 pm PDT

Checking the NTSB photos and other media it is fully apparent that the separation of the trim tab is well after the aircraft is inverted. In a roundabout way NTSB have softly pointed at the medical ability, or inability of the pilot to handle the excessive G loadings and of course repetitive high G loadings. While never write yourself at age objectively a 74 year old racing a highly modified aircraft of unknown performance characteristics, flying at 50ft high around a tight course pulling repetitive high G forces one would have to question what the hell are they doing. Yes alter the course, yes review the processes and sadly yes print a big warning on the tickets to those of the same mentality of a 74 year old pilots who think their body can handle it. The NTSB may have to avoid litigation but in Australia there would be a straight answer. No.

Martin Haisman
3rd August, 2012 @ 10:39 pm PDT
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