Risky Business


Although I’ve never had the opportunity to attend the Reno National Championship Air Races, I’ve always been something of a fan. I mean, what pilot isn’t interested in an activity involving airplanes and in which the maxim is “go fast, turn left?” So it was with great shock and sadness I learned about the September 16 crash of Jimmy Leeward and Galloping Ghost, his modified P-51 Mustang, into the box seat area at Reno. In addition to Leeward, 10 spectators died, and another 66 suffered serious injuries.


Losing anyone as dedicated to aviation as Leeward is a tragedy. But the mind reels when confronted by the deaths and injuries among spectators, and the suddenness with which it all occurred.

Many theories about what happened, accompanied by video and still images, have emerged since the crash. The FAA and NTSB had personnel on the race site, so they were involved in the investigation from the first moments. According to the NTSB, the aircraft carried equipment to record performance data and transmit it to the ground team in real-time, so the Board should have more than enough information to conduct a thorough investigation. An onboard camera recorded video but it’s not yet publicly known if that information is retrievable.

Well before the NTSB issues its probable cause finding, several conclusions can be drawn. For one, the mass media’s coverage of this tragedy failed to do any favors for itself or the aviation community. Repeated references to Leeward’s P-51 as a WWII-vintage aircraft—while technically accurate—utterly failed to consider it had been rebuilt on several occasions and was radically modified to eliminate the stock P-51’s underbelly air scoop, among other major changes. That same coverage omitted references to the professionalism of the pilots, their crews and race organizers, or to the many safety precautions in place, depicting Reno as a much more casual affair than it really is.

Second, what happened at Reno was a near-worst-case, one-in-a-million thing. Shifting by only a few seconds the events leading to the airplane’s crash could have meant the difference between a relatively benign emergency landing and something even worse.

A third conclusion is that flying airplanes can be a terribly unforgiving endeavor when we push the edge; unlimited racing is perhaps the least forgiving of the genre.

Racing at Reno bears little resemblance to the kind of flying I do, so I’m not at all concerned about the impact of this tragedy on my operations. But I will be much more aware of the little things that can go wrong, how quickly they can develop into something larger and more lethal, and continue taking steps to minimize that risk.

— Jeb Burnside


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