Friday’s shocking P-51 crash at Reno, Nevada claimed even more lives than it was initially anticipated. The official death toll has now risen to 9: seven people died on the tarmac, including the pilot, and two more died in hospitals. Added to that number are 67 injured, many of them in critical condition.
The team of investigators continues to comb the accident site where the P-51 “Galloping Ghost” racer literally disintegrated into a cloud of debris.
A National Transportation Safety Board member confirmed yesterday that one of the scenarios under investigation is whether the plane’s apparently damaged elevator trim tab, whose breaking apart was captured in a photograph by one of the onlookers, played a role in the nosedive crash.
The disaster struck during the third lap of an eight lap Unlimited Gold race, when the Galloping Ghost, piloted by Jimmy Leeward, was flying in the third position. Suddenly, the plane pitched violently upward, reverting from its course into an erratic barrel roll followed by a near-vertical dive. The aircraft remained at full power throughout the manoeuvre and smashed violently into the tarmac only meters ahead of the grandstands, with disastrous results.
The said photo of the Galloping Ghost showing the aircraft upside down prior to the accident reveal that the port elevator tab was missing. During the race, most of the pilots set the elevator trim tabs straight down. Sudden loss of a tab at high speed could have caused the loss of pilot’s control over the plane. In a situation like this, the stick force that the pilot has to apply to hold the nose level changes drastically, causing the plane’s nose to rapidly rise. At a speed of almost 500 mph, the g-forces could build up very quickly, possibly faster than the pilot could compensate. This type of incident happened to another racing P-51 in 1998.
The Galloping Ghost was an air racing veteran, remembering the times of the Cleveland Air Race. Under the ownership of Jimmy Leeward, the aircraft was extensively modified, featuring a Rick Shanholtzer-prepared racing Merlin and a water boiler cooling system. Removing the air scoop and radiator has substantially reduced drag, however limiting the range of the aircraft to the amount of consumable water in the cooling tanks.