The NTSB this week opened the accident docket for the Reno crash that rocked the nation last September, providing the public further insight into what caused the highly modified P-51 known as Galloping Ghost to crash into a crowd of spectators at the show, killing 11 and injuring more than 60.
Among the more than 900 pages of evidence and analysis listed in the docket is a recent aircraft performance report that cites the likelihood that loose screws and fatigue in the trim tab initially triggered the crash.
According to the report, tech inspectors squawked the trim tab attach for short screws on the right side, which the crew later said was simply a cross threaded screw. Regardless, the trim tab that would fail was on the other side, though crewmembers never inspected it pre-race as it had not been the subject of a squawk.
The possibly insecure nature of the trim tab, combined with a wake encounter, could have resulted in flutter that may have overloaded the Galloping Ghost’s trim tab, causing it to separate from the aircraft, investigators say.
A video captured by a witness at the scene shows the trim tab falling to the ground directly before the airplane nose-dived into the VIP area in front of the bleachers. Investigators say the motion of the P-51 directly before the crash was consistent with a trim tab failure.
In its report, the NTSB noted that the Galloping Ghost’s speed and vertical loading was similar to that of other racing P-51s, and that “there was no indication that an increase in static aerodynamic forces overloaded to cause the failure of the left trim tab control rod.”
Before the race, the crew of Galloping Ghost seemed confident that the airplane was dialed in.
Crewmember Rick Shanholtzer recalled that Leeward seemed well prepared for the race.
"This year everything was going smooth, not rushed," he told NTSB investigators last November. "Jimmy was happy with the way things were working. The only concerns Jimmy had was that he had crew install an altimeter on Wednesday to make sure he didn’t bust any altitudes. Jimmy seemed real relaxed, joking around. No health issues that he knew of. [Leeward] took [the] racing serious."
The information contained in the docket is purely factual and contains no conclusive analysis. The NTSB is expected to release a final report on the probable cause of the Reno crash by the end of this month.
Despite increased financial obligations and safety changes, the Reno Air Races are slated to take place again this year, Sept.12 -16.