Experts: Pilot likely unconscious in Reno crash

RENO — The veteran aviator whose plane slammed into a crowd of Nevada air race spectators at 400 mph had no chance to save his ill-fated flight after probably losing consciousness from acceleration more abrupt and extreme than even what most fighter pilots endure, flying experts said.

Jimmy Leeward’s aircraft shot skyward like a rocket Friday before plunging into spectators at what appeared to be full throttle. Federal investigators continue to look for a cause of the crash at the National Championship Air Races, which killed 11 people, including Leeward, and injured dozens, but have yet to come to a conclusion, something that could take months.

They are focused on a range of possibilities, including Leeward’s health and the structural soundness of the plane after a piece of the tail called the “elevator trim tab” that helps control the aircraft’s pitch appeared to break off before the crash.

While some have called the 74-year-old Leeward heroic for making a last-ditch maneuver around crowded stands, experts who have reviewed multiple amateur videos from the scene, photographs and witness accounts doubt that theory. They say it appears Leeward wasn’t controlling the plane during the last few seconds.

“He’s not there. He’s unconscious,” said Ernie Christensen, a retired rear admiral and former Vietnam fighter pilot who commanded the Navy’s Top Gun fighter school for a time in the 1980s.

Christensen said one key clue that Leeward wasn’t at the controls is the fact that his highly modified P-51 Mustang appeared to hit the ground at full throttle.

“The first thing you do when you get into those conditions is pull power, and that plane hit fast,” he said. “The power was up, and that’s an indication he was not in control of the airplane when it hit.”

Leeward was near the end of his race when he narrowly missed the grandstands packed with fans and jerked into a steep climb at up to 500 mph, streaking skyward possibly a thousand feet or more before twirling and speeding into the ground.

Friday’s crash was the nation’s deadliest air racing disaster, with 11 confirmed dead and 14 others still being treated at Reno hospitals. In all, more than 70 people were admitted for injuries after the crashing plane sprayed shrapnel into the crowd of spectators, cutting limbs and other body parts.

Twenty pilots, including Leeward, have died at the races over the past 47 years, but the Friday crash was the first time fans were killed.

Christensen said if Leeward were conscious, he would have cut power back once he gained altitude.

“Altitude is sanctuary,” he said.

“And his nose didn’t hang; it came over like he was doing almost a loop … and when his nose came down, he started gaining air speed,” Christensen added. “This guy had the power up.”

Rough calculations by experts using video of the plane seconds before the crash indicate it might have been traveling at more than 400 mph when it suddenly went vertical, abruptly exerting 11 times the normal force of gravity on the pilot’s body, knocking him unconscious as the blood rushed from his brain.

By comparison, Christensen said, F-16 fighter pilots, who wear special suits to counter the G-forces, can typically take
9 Gs, but only for a limited time. And those are modern planes designed with tilted seats intended to help keep blood flow to the brain.

Average roller coasters expose riders to about 2 to 3 Gs, but only for brief moments.

Ken Liano, a structural engineer and aircraft consultant, said “it’s highly doubtful” Leeward was awake.

“My first thought when I saw the video was there’s no way that pilot is in control,” Liano said. “He went from horizontal to vertical so abruptly. No pilot would do that. Even an acrobatic pilot would probably not do that maneuver.”

Liano speculated the loss of the trim tab started the sequence of events. Leeward’s World War II-era plane was highly modified for speed, much like other aircraft at the races. But the plane wasn’t originally designed that way, so the extra speed gained from the modifications probably stressed the structure, causing the failure, he said.

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