A September 2011 airplane crash at a Reno, Nevada, air show that killed 11 people and injured more than 60 others was the result of worn-out and poorly maintained parts that came apart under the pressure of flying the plane at an unprecedented speed, federal investigators concluded this week.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) report, several lock nuts on the airplane’s left trim tab, a section of the tail, had not been replaced in at least 26 years. The weathered nuts failed to keep the tail screws secure, a condition that investigators said may have threatened the airplane for years.
But the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, 74, pushed the P-51 Mustang airplane to a speed of 445 knots – 35 knots faster than it had ever flown before – causing flutter vibrations in the plane’s trim tabs. The highly modified airplane subsequently shot upward with an acceleration of about 17 Gs, causing the pilot to lose consciousness. The airplane then rolled and crashed into a box seating area full of spectators.
The NTSB also blamed the crash on major changes to the aircraft, designed to make it fly faster. The wingspan had been reduced to 29 feet from its original 37-foot length. Also, “Some of the changes were undocumented and had a detrimental effect on the World War II-era aircraft,” according to the NTSB.
CNN reported that the NTSB found that “the plane’s right trim tab – a piece of the tail – was locked in position aligned with the tail.” NTSB investigators discovered that the pilot had put a screw through the right trim tab to lock it in position, causing him to lose redundancy and forcing him to rely solely on the left elevator, which ultimately failed.
The horrific crash could have put an end to Reno’s National Championship Air Races, but organizers said that they have implemented a number of NTSB-recommended improvements to enhance safety at this year’s event, scheduled to run September 12-16, and future races.
For instance, participating airplanes must demonstrate their ability to fly safely at race speeds before the event; the aerial race course was modified to soften the sharp turn where Mr. Leeward lost control; and spectators will be seated farther from the race course.
“Pilots know that they are taking risks, but air race pilots expect that the risks taken are theirs alone,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement. “The spectators assumed that their safety had been assessed and addressed.”
The Reno racing association announced last week that it established a $77-million fund to compensate victims of last year’s race crash and their heirs. Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the $20-billion BP oil spill fund as well as a fund for 9/11 victims, has been hired to manage the Reno air crash victims’ fund.
Photo by CNN