About this article
As news of the crash spread, my phone lit up with calls from family and friends. Folks knew I was at the races, and wanted to know, was I okay, and what happened? Having just survived virtually unhurt, roughly 50 feet from the point of impact, and having seen the devastation around me, I was in no way prepared to tell the story over and over. The following day was spent driving from Reno to Idaho in silence, phone still turned off.
Not only did I need to get in touch, I also needed to dump the experience, which was repeating itself in my head, over and over. On Sunday morning, I wrote this piece. It was intended solely to inform friends and family, many of whom are completely unfamiliar with air racing. Inevitably, some friends would be missed, so I told everyone it was okay to forward the message.
Within 24 hours the piece had shown up on message boards all over the web. The next couple weeks were spent responding to strangers, many of whom were in attendance at the races, and trying to put together the sequence of events which took place almost too fast to follow. In light of the effect this piece has had, I've decided to fix a couple of the more egregious errors, and permanently post it here. Because it was written solely out of my head, without the benefit of outside input or additional research, it contains innacuracies, both in terms of observation and specualtion. Now, many months later, I've chosen to leave it largely as it was, rather than rewrite the article.
Jimmy Leeward, of Ocala, FL, was a well-liked, and very experienced stunt pilot/air racer. His P-51 Mustang “The Galloping Ghost” had a racing history dating back to the Cleveland National Air Races of the late 1940s. The aircraft was freshly restored and heavily modified, in hopes of wining a Gold Unlimited title at the National Championship Air Races in Reno.
Winning today requires an airframe and engine combination capable of maintaining speeds of around 500 mph, while flying around an eight mile, roughly oval shaped race course. It is an expensive and dangerous game. On Friday, September 16, while flying in a heat race, at a speed of perhaps 475mph, Galloping Ghost suffered one or more mechanical failures which resulted in the aircraft crashing into the audience in a near vertical high speed dive.
While many pilots have died in the 48 year history of racing at Reno, no spectator has ever before been killed by a racing aircraft.
(Please Note: it must be said, this first section is highly speculative. It may be completely innacurate, and was written solely on the bassis of what I thought I saw in the few seconds available. At the time of writing, I had not seen other photos/video, or read any other accounts of the accident.)
Shortly after rounding the final pylon, and heading past the grand stands, an elevator trim tab broke away from the airplane. This part is used to help balance the aircraft’s control forces. As speed, power settings and aircraft pitch changes, forces on the control stick change. The trim tabs can be adjusted from the cockpit to help balance these stick forces.
Many years previously, another racing Mustang named Voodoo had this same failure. When the tab broke free of the elevator, the aircraft pitched up sharply, pulling so many Gs the pilot blacked out. Fortunately, the plane continued to climb, and when the pilot came around, he had plenty of altitude, brought the aircraft under control, and made a safe landing.
For whatever reason, perhaps because of some other unknown mechanical failure, When Jimmy’s plane pitched up it also started to roll to the right. I’m unclear whether Leeward declared a mayday and pulled the plane up, or whether the aircraft pitched up on its own as had previously happened with Voodoo. I cannot imagine any reason to roll the plane in either direction and thus must assume it did this in spite of any pilot input.
If Leeward was unable to counteract these pitch and roll forces, as appeared to me to be the case, the crash was inevitable. As the aircraft rolled onto its right wing, the upward pitch on the elevator would cause the plane to turn right toward the crowd. It continued rolling onto its back, at which point the upward pitch would now direct the plane toward the ground. Understand all of this is speculation on my part, and in no way based on an official investigation.
After watching a Youtube video of the crash, and looking at my own photos, I believe it's possible Leeward was fighting hard to stop the roll. Among my own photos, I can see left aileron input, in spite of which the aircraft continued slowly rolling to the right. At some point during the process, the tail wheel of the landing gear came down. I have no idea what that implies, but it shouldn’t have been the case. Something may well have gone wrong inside the aircraft’s structure, which contributed to the crash.
I watched the whole thing happen through the viewfinder of my camera. From the time I spotted Jimmy’s pull up out of the corner of my eye, I swung the camera over and captured a total of thirteen images. The camera records the time of day with each photo, but only in whole seconds. I have no idea if the camera’s time of day is accurate or not. I’m merely using it to timeline the incident.
By the time I captured my first three shot burst, the aircraft was inverted and heading – apparently in level flight – over the grandstands. The first photo was recorded at 28:58 (minutes/seconds past the hour). There is then a two second gap as I refocused. If the camera is working at its exact rated shutter speed, the next sequence of ten consecutive shots should cover exactly two seconds. According to the time stamps, the elapsed time for the second ten shots was from 29:00 to 29:02.
It hardly matters how exact the times are. The real point is to illustrate how little time passed from loss of control to impact. The last photo I took of another aircraft before spotting the pitch up was at 28:54. I would say from pitch up to impact was on the order of nine seconds. Folks have been quoted in the press saying they think he tried to maneuver to avoid the crowd. I think he spent that little time just trying to gain control, much less head in a specific direction.
By the time I started shooting the second string, of photos, my mental state had gone from “he’s in trouble,” meaning the aircraft shouldn’t have rolled and turned, to “he’s in trouble,” meaning I think there’s a better than even chance he will crash behind the grandstands. From this point on I’m using words to try and represent what was likely only emotions in my head.
Watching through a camera viewfinder, the scene has a slow strobe effect. Also, the telephoto lens is making it all seem that much closer. “He’s heading down and is going to hit the grandstands.” This was followed by a realization he’s tucking under, and slowly turning toward me. My final sensation was of “fast…angry sound…coming… HERE!”
The Box Seats
Reno’s box seats are ten by ten foot sections demarcated by steel uprights holding aluminum poles with fabric draped over them. They put ten plastic folding chairs in each box. There are three rows of boxes separated by about twenty feet. It’s typical rental company stuff. The boxes are located in front of the bleachers on a thick asphalt hardstand, which is used for heavy aircraft parking. It’s a tough surface. I was sitting on a chair at the front left of our box, which was located in the front row of boxes. As the Ghost came over my left shoulder, I swiveled on the seat to try and keep it in the frame. By the time of my last photo, I was swiveled a little over 90 degrees to the left, and was holding the camera at an odd angle pointing almost straight up.
While still shooting, survival instinct kicked in. The very last photo is a complete blur because I had already started to swivel back the other way. With no time to move, I simply slipped off the chair and ducked down, turning my back to the aircraft and closed my eyes.
I absolutely knew this was going to be a huge impact, and close enough to very thoroughly kill me. I did not think all these specific thoughts, I’m merely trying to put words to how I felt. There was no perceivable time between squatting down and the crash.
A pulse of what felt like liquid and sand struck me from behind. Something made several small scratches on my right calf. At the same time another object passed between my legs and left multiple shallow cuts just above the inside of my left ankle. Then nothing…silence. It was over. I heard a couple screams just before the impact, but do not recall hearing anything specific after. The impact was not loud, and other than the blast of material against my back, there had obviously not been any form of fiery explosion, so I stood up.
The boxes are all adjoining, so you are in close proximity to your neighbors. I looked at my hosts Ken and Nancy who were sitting one in front of the other on the far side of our box. They looked pretty beat up, but without any obvious major injuries. I turned and looked into the box on my left. Two people had been sitting together at the right front of their box, virtually shoulder to shoulder with me. They were both lying face down and unconscious.
There was a disabled boy in a power chair who had been sitting toward the back left corner of their booth. He and the chair had been blown across the back of the booth. There was a large piece of aircraft structure wrapped around the side of the chair. He was on the ground, also unconscious. The tail gear from the Mustang, and several pieces of twisted aluminum were sitting in the middle of their box (note: this paragraph is mixed up. In retrospect, I was more in shock than I knew. After walking in circles, I mixed up a power chair in the box to my right with the wheel chair in the box to my left. I'm not sure it matters any more to straighten out the details of what I saw to either side of me. The situation was chaotic. That fact speaks for itself.)
Looking to the back of our box, a man was kneeling and holding his hand over a large heavily bleeding head wound. There is no point in describing other things I saw over to my left. There have been plenty of graphic descriptions quoted in the press. Galloping Ghost impacted just behind the front row of box seats. It had just passed vertical in its dive, so the bulk of the debris scattered over the hardstand in front of us. It hit at high speed and completely shattered. Other than the tail wheel, I could see no other identifiable parts.
The three photos below were taken with a 400mm telephoto lens over a period of roughly four seconds. To interpret them, you have to bear in mind the first was taken looking forward away from the grandstands, and the third was shot essentially over the shoulder, with the camera held almost vertical. It is possible to track the orientation of the plane by the reflection of the ground in it's spinner. In the first shot, the Ghost is inverted, but flying mostly level. In shot two, the plane is pitching down toward vertical, with the reflection moving toward the center of the spinner. In shot three, the aircraft has passed through vertical and the ground reflection is now moving toward the bottom of the spinner. I was trying to track the airplane and, of course, was also running through the range of emotions from “he’s going to be killed” to “I’m going to be killed.” I have one more shot in the sequence, but it's just a blur as I was in the process of sliding off my chair. From the third shot to impact was likely little more than a second at most.
(This paragraph is updated) The aircraft hit just behind our row, and several boxes down to the left. I will never forget watching it arc around toward me while filling the viewfinder. Could I have yelled for people to duck? Honestly, my own realization came so late, if I had taken the time to yell before dropping off the seat I would not have made it to the ground in time. The shot below came to me unattributed. (If you can demonstrate ownership, and don't want it posted, please contact me and I'll take it down) The point of impact is clearly visible in the lower portion of the photo. I am highlighted by the red arrow, in the process of getting up off the ground.
(This paragraph has been added to help clarify) When originally posting, I had included an image which I thought was the box to our left. It turns out to have been the box on our right. The tail gear had passed over or through our box and landed in theirs. The first shot below encompasses three boxes, with ours in the middle. I have recently heard from the couple in the shot I originaly posted. She sustained cuts, bruises, and a black eye. He had more severe injuries to his face, but is recovering. The second photo below shows the tail gear in the middle of their box. During the crash, I would have been in the top left corner of this photo. The steel trash can came from behind us in the direction of the crash site. I never noticed it going by.
Every surface facing the crash was coated with oil, water, dirt, and biological material. I really don’t want to go any further than that in terms of what the scene was like. I threw all my clothes, including shoes and socks, in a trash bin and went back to the hotel in my boxer shorts and a sweater I had in the back of my truck.
I was the least injured person in my vicinity. Why, I don’t know. The whole scenario keeps running over and over in my head like an 8-track tape. Normally, I’m not easily affected by things, but this one is definitely going to be running around in my head for life.
As much as any of us would like to believe we're immortal, I've had some emotional ups and downs in the days since. Just as this report has helped others find some understanding of what they saw, so the many responses and kind words have helped me come to grips as well.