(December 2011) It will be a while before the NTSB issues its findings about the crash of The Galloping Ghost at the Reno Air Races this year. There were so many witnesses, however, and photographic and video coverage of the disastrous accident was so clear, that it did not take long for theorizing about the cause to converge on a single scenario.
The extensively modified P-51 had been involved in racing on and off, with various pilots and under different names, since 1946, but news reports referring to it as a “vintage” airplane, with their suggestion of overall wear and decay, were misleading. It had been crashed, repaired and modified a number of times and was barely recognizable as a P-51. Ten feet had been clipped from its wings and the iconic belly scoop and radiator had been removed altogether, replaced by a tank of water that boiled off during flight and left behind a telltale trail of steam. It was owned and flown by 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, an Ocala, Florida, real estate developer and an experienced race and stunt pilot.
The Galloping Ghost was approaching the area of the bleachers, which are 1,000 feet from the southern edge of the egg-shaped 8.5-mile race course, when it suddenly shot upward, rolled to the right and plunged out of a tall, narrow loop to crash just in front of the VIP boxes. The impact and the flying debris killed at least 10 people on the ground and gravely injured dozens. That the accident occurred where it did was a piece of diabolically bad luck. Unlike the stands that entirely surround a NASCAR course or a football stadium, those at Reno occupy a very small fraction of the perimeter of the course. If the accident had occurred anywhere else, only the pilot would have died.
A high quality video of the loss of control (vimeo.com/29519344) shows the airplane rounding a pylon in a steep left bank. It apparently encounters wake turbulence and briefly rolls past vertical before recovering. The pitch-up begins right after this excursion, and the tailwheel is out almost immediately. The tab falls away while the airplane is inverted at the top of the loop.
The initial failure, then, must have been of an actuator or a hinge, not of the tab itself. Photographs provided other clues. In a profile view of the airplane seconds before impact, the cockpit appeared to be empty and the tailwheel was extended. Whatever held the tailwheel up had failed, presumably under a high G load. The apparent absence of the pilot was explained by another photograph, in which the airplane was seen from above and his white helmet was visible far forward under the canopy; he was apparently slumped over the stick, his head below the canopy rails.