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 70 other spectators. It is the third deadliest airshow disaster in United States history. The racecourse was eight and a half 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 airplane’s tail 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 crash’s probable cause 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 25 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 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 eight months after the initial meeting with Ken Feinberg, Administrator of the Fund. The process resulted in the complete exhaustion of all the available insurance funds to cover the losses the spectators and their families sustained.

Mike Slack has been practicing law for over 36 years and has litigated hundreds of lawsuits. His experience as a licensed pilot and former NASA aerospace engineer gives him unique insight into aviation accident lawsuits.

Ladd Sanger is an attorney and a licensed pilot who focuses on aviation accidents, including product liability, product litigation, and representing clients who have been injured as a result of aviation accidents. His experience as a pilot helps him understand the technical aspects of aviation crashes.

Date of Incident

September 16, 2011

Location of Incident

Reno, Nevada

Represented By:

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