Reno Air Race Crash

Posted by in Aviation, Safety

Some remarkable photographs have emerged from last Friday’s tragedy at National Championship Air Races. Several friends of mine were at the event, some as competitors (though none in the Unlimited category) and others as spectators. Between phone calls, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, photos, and video, I’ve received so many accounts of the crash that I almost feel like I was there.

I wasn’t, of course, and I’m glad of that now. I’d imagine there’s going to be some post-traumatic stress for the air race community to deal with once things settle down. Let me start off by saying that I don’t know what caused the accident, nor does anyone else with absolute certainty. The good news is that the NTSB will puzzle this thing out pretty quickly even if an official report isn’t issued until next year. The destruction of the Galloping Ghost was total and complete. Normally that would make the investigation harder. On the plus side, the NTSB was already on site at the time of the crash, the aircraft had data recorders on board, and there was plenty of photographic evidence to compliment the first-hand accounts from witnesses.

Here are but a few of the many images captured of the accident:

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The first image seems to show a missing elevator trim tab. Was this the cause of the crash or simply a piece of a larger accident chain? Who knows.

In layman’s terms, the purpose of that tab is to allow control pressures to be equalized and the airplane trimmed so that it flies “hands off”. Without a trim tab — or even with it, if the pilot chose not to use it — as airspeed increased, the airplane would want to climb due to increasing lift produced by the wings. The pilot could, of course, just press forward on the stick and hold the airplane level, but that quickly gets tiring. And as the airspeed climbs, it would eventually become impossible to push hard enough to keep the plane from climbing.

At 500 mph, the Mustang’s wings were producing a tremendous amount of lift. Fighting that force was the elevator, and the only thing keeping it from slamming to the full up position would be that tab. If it failed, the plane would have pitched up rapidly enough to subject the pilot to 10 or more G’s.

Something's missing here: the pilot.

At least, that’s what happened to another modified Mustang a few years ago when it lost that tab during a race at Reno. In this photo, taken less than a second before the plane hit the ground, you can see that the pilot appears to be missing from the airplane. Obviously he’s there somewhere, but the G forces involved probably forced him down or back in the seat.

Everyone seems to agree that the response from emergency personnel, spectators, competitors, and crew was as good as could be expected, with calm prevailing rather than panic. Still, eleven people are dead as of this writing and even publications like AVweb are asking if the races should be held in future years. Normally the aviation community is of one mind when a piece of our world is threatened, but the feeling in this case is not unanimous in favor of the air races.

I’m not surprised at that. Most of the public (including, sadly, much of the aviation industry) doesn’t understand the world of competitive aerobatics too well, either. To most people, competition and airshows are the same thing when, in fact, they are worlds apart in both substance and safety. In fact, in the aftermath of the Reno crash, EAA has posted an article entitled, “An Air Race is Not an Air Show”. If you look at it geometrically, there’s no way a vehicle can go around a track of any sort and not, at some point, direct a lot of energy toward the crowd. Unless, of course, you place the spectators on the interior of the course, but even that has risks. That’s exactly where the competitor will go in case of engine failure.

My thoughts on Reno’s future? I’m of the opinion that air racing is important for several reasons. The first is historical. This sport goes back to the dawn of powered flight itself. It wasn’t long after the Wright Brothers developed a practical airplane that pilots began racing aircraft. At Reno, the first races were held before World War I. At one time there were air races in cities like New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and even Los Angeles. Those events helped spur the development of aviation and made characters like Roscoe Turner and Jimmie Doolittle household names.

Alas, all those races are gone now. The only real air racing left in the world is the annual event at Reno, and it would be a shame to see that disappear, too. It’s interesting to note that Jimmy Doolittle, who achieved considerable success and his initial fame in the world of air racing, became an opponent of the sport in later years. He felt that while it spurred the early development of the airplane, racing outgrew its usefulness once the industry took off and was simply a hazard with no true value.

Unfortunately this is one area where I have to take issue with Doolittle, because I see tremendous value even today in air racing. It stands as a testament to freedom, for one thing. Even the little guy can compete in this sport! He may not end up in the Gold class with a basic aircraft, but Cassutt race planes can be purchased on the used market for less than the price of a typical automobile. I have a former student who participated at Reno for the first time this year in his homebuilt Pitts S-1. What a feeling it must be!

The air races are more than just a good time, though. They add $80 million annually in much-needed economic activity to the Reno area. Hotels, restaurants, casinos, and tourism all benefit from the event. The state of Nevada has an official unemployment rate of nearly 15%. The real number is probably closer to 20%, with God-knows how many more people simple uncounted or badly underemployed.

The most important argument for the National Championship Air Races, however, is that they still advance the technology and capability of aircraft. People tend to focus on the Unlimited or Jet classes because they achieve the highest speeds and make the most noise, but look elsewhere and you’ll see amazing developments at Reno, especially among the Sport Class. The NXT, Venture, original Nemesis, and other ground-breaking designs were purpose-built for Reno, and those aircraft have led to aerodynamic and powerplant innovations which will find their way into other airplanes.

In fact, the Sport Class speeds are rapidly closing in on the Unlimiteds. This year a Sport Class racer — a homebuilt Glasair III, no less — averaged nearly 400 mph. If the races continue, I have no doubt the Sport Class will eventually supersede the Sea Furys, Mustangs, and other warbirds. Likewise, you’ll see inventive touches among the Formula One and Biplane classes as well. Some ideas work out, some don’t. But as they say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Dick Rutan once said that if it wasn’t for the willingness of people to risk death in order to achieve significant things, we’d still be looking at the rump of an ox as we plodded westward.

Yes, there are hazards. People can get hurt or killed, just as they have been at drag races, NASCAR races, boat races, and just about every other sporting event you can think of. Re-read my recent tome on the concept of safety if you want my thoughts on that.

Those who don’t know any better assume Reno is just a NASCAR-like airborne high-testosterone zone for beer-swilling red necks, but look in the pits and the stands and you’ll find engineers for NASA, Boeing, Lockheed, Scaled Composites, and other leading-edge aerospace outfits. Where else can you try out a new design and really see how fast it will go? Reno is THE test track for aircraft. May it live on for years to come.