Reno Air Race Disaster

On September 16, 2011, a highly modified P-51D Mustang crashed near the spectator area at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, killing the pilot and ten spectators, and injuring at least seventy other spectators. It is the third deadliest airshow disaster in United States history. The racecourse was 8.5 miles long, marked by 50-foot-tall pylons anchored in the Nevada desert. The box seats and grandstand were placed only along one portion of the racetrack. The crash happened in the afternoon, during visual meteorological conditions. The airplane was in third place when the accident occurred. As the pilot was on his third lap of six, the plane rolled left and pitched up and then nosedived, striking the ground in front of the box seats and grandstand. The plane was completely destroyed in the impact.

The pilot, Jimmy Leeward, held a commercial pilot certificate with single and multiple-engine ratings, an instrument aircraft certificate, a rotorcraft-helicopter certificate, and a glider certificate. He was rated for many types of airplanes, including experimental aircraft. His application for the races listed his total flight time at over 13,000 hours with 2,700 flight hours in “The Galloping Ghost.”

Leeward’s airplane, a World War II-era aircraft known as “The Galloping Ghost” had been highly modified over the years to make it faster. Its original 37-foot wingspan had been reduced to 29 feet. The right trim tab on the tail of the airplane had been locked in position. Some of the changes were undocumented and had not been thoroughly tested.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the probable cause of the crash was a combination of worn aircraft bolts and speed. Several lock nuts on the left trim tab, a portion of the airplane’s tail, were extremely worn. Investigators estimated they might not have been replaced for twenty-five years or more. The worn nuts allowed screws to loosen at some time in the past. While this slight loosening did not present an immediate problem, when pilot Leeward pushed the plane to the limits of its top speed, the trim tabs vibrated, causing the plane to pitch up drastically. It is estimated that this pitch occurred at 17 G forces, incapacitating Leeward. The plane then rolled and crashed into the box seating area. The NTSB recommended seven changes to future air races, including changing the course design and layout of racecourses further away from spectators, pre-race inspections, and airworthiness aircraft modifications.

Slack Davis Sanger represented multiple spectators and served as the lead counsel for all the spectator survivors and families in originating, negotiating and implementing the Reno Air Disaster Compensation Fund. Insurance funds of $77 million were distributed to claimants in January 2013, less than 8 months after the initial meeting with Ken Feinberg, Administrator of the Fund. Feinberg was also the administrator of the funds for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. The process resulted in complete exhaustion of all the available insurance funds available to cover the losses sustained by the spectators and their families.

Investigative Report

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