A story out by the Associated Press, says the 2012 Reno Air Races are still on after a few changes were recommended. That’s great. I had been hoping that the event would continue, and given that the organization has been optimistically going full throttle on their website for many months now (it’s quite shn-azzy) I had a feeling it might go ahead. But I can’t say I was always 100% confident that it would happen again this year (if at all), and to some degree, I wouldn’t have blamed the license issuers if they declined it. Why? Because, (and this purely my opinion), the reason for the crash last year was almost certainly due to stupidity.
The Id or the Ego?
Of course the investigation isn’t complete, but the accident in 2011 that killed 11 people and sent 69 to the hospital was surely preventable. I’m paraphrasing here, but regarding the pilot of the plane that killed so many bystanders, I’ve seen it written a few places that “Jimmy Leeward was a great guy”, a “wonderful pilot”, and a “competitor”. I’m sure those descriptions were true, but I would also add “amateur”. After the now-famous, and horrifying, crash that Mr. Leeward was involved in last year while flying his heavily modified P-51 Mustang “The Galloping Ghost”, I’m pretty positive that some amount of inexperience and bravado was also involved.
The facts are simple: Leeward “heavily” modified his P-51 Mustang. We’re not talking a little nitrous in the injectors or a different prop cone. We’re talking major airframe (aka airworthiness) modifications. He took off an amazing 10 feet, (TEN FEET) of wing length from a plane that didn’t have a lot of wingspan for its size to begin with. He also reduced the area of the vertical stabilizer, and added other parts he could brag about like a ‘boil-off radiator’ which he claimed was similar to what was used on the space shuttle. So what?
From what I’ve read, Jimmy Leeward was a lot of things; like a real estate developer, a pilot, an actor… but he was not an engineer. Just because you can fly, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to design an aircraft. I think that given the immense experience he had as a pilot, combined with his incredible risk taking (which he mostly got away with), he was probably over-confident in his abilities, which led to incredible inexperience in extreme designing.
Surely the types of modifications that were performed by Mr. Leeward were a drastic departure from the original designers intentions. The P-51 was a plane already built to be fast and nimble (for dog-fighting in WWII…back when there was dog-fighting). So what would make a person think that the design wasn’t already that way for a reason? Sure, you could you make the argument that the extra wing might have been for drop tanks (it was), and so without a fuel load, it was overbuilt. But do you know for sure? Have you (or did he) run the numbers? Did he realize he was not just ‘reducing drag’, but likely reducing stability?
Hello? Trim Tab?
Yes, the most suspect cause of this accident was not directly the wings or the pilot, but was mostly likely a failure of the trim tab. But was that on it’s own the cause of the crash? In 1998, another modified P-51 Mustang, Voodoo Chile, lost a trim tab sending the plane out of control briefly and causing a near-crash. That pilot survived, and he described a scenario similar to that of The Galloping Ghosts apparent last moments.. Both planes were modified, both exceeded factory specs, but did either owner re-enforce the trim tab? Was either owner in the room with the drafter in 1938 when he was given the requirement to design those parts? It sounds silly but who read the transcript of the back-and-forth meetings at North American Aviation then, discussing justifications for why things were built the way they were built? Those discussions without a doubt took place.
Feeling the Need for 10 G’s
So is what Leeward did fundamentally wrong? Not at all. I’m not opposed to such corners being cut (so to speak) to do something neat. But I am highly opposed when there is at stake more than one’s own life. Pushing mechanical limits is one thing, making choices for others is another. In my opinion Leeward certainly chose the wrong venue to show off what his money could buy, and he underestimated his own abilities. Even if it was a simple trim tab failure, the fact that the plane was going so much faster than intended meant that any sudden problem, any quick course change, would put more stress on the aircraft than it was designed for. If the Voodoo Chile pilot reported 10 G’s and blacking out, then why wouldn’t Leeward have recognized that was possible and been better prepared for it? Even conditioned fighter pilots in their 20’s can’t take that kind of stress without a suit. Why wouldn’t he, in his 70’s, have spend a little more dough to outfit one?
Godzilla of the Skies
With exhibition stunts, the vehicle is usually the focus. Take the Godzilla car, or a jet powered semi-truck, or a flame-throwing octopus car (pictured). In that context, a WWII plane with the wings chopped off would have been great as…something else…. really, anything else. But as an entrant in a competitive race? No way. With thousands of close spectators and even closer wingtip-to-wingtip competing flyers, he was risking more than his own life, and I’ll argue so were the officials.
Why Even Race?
The amazing thing to me about racing in general is being able to win within the limits. Formula 1 race cars are heavily restricted, and some amazing technology has resulted in part from these restrictions. With NASCAR, it’s similar, and although the scenario is different, it’s still about the drivers and the team. In nearly all major motorsport arenas, winning does and should come down mostly to driver skill, pit crews, and only then minor modifications and racing decisions (i.e. tire inflation pressures, oil viscosity, etc.). With the Reno race, it seems the rules for this ‘unlimited’ class prove not that these aspects are a focus of winning, but rather attempt to prove that he who has the craziest mods, wins.
I’m glad that the Air Races are back on, but lets keep the crazy modifications to some non-racing ‘exhibition’ events, and make the actual races more about the pilots, pit crews, and minor tweaks that give them the winning edge.