That's what some press reports are saying. Had Jimmy Leeward not maneuvered the stricken plane as he did, things could have been much worse.
"The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac,” Johnny Norman, who was at the show, told the Associated Press.
That's a nice thought. But it's probably not true. Leeward likely was unconscious for most of the accident sequence, unable to veer the aircraft anywhere.
This isn't the first time a P-51 lost its trim tab at the Reno Air Races. It happened once in 1998, when flutter ripped a trim tab from a P-51 called "Voodoo." Bob Hannah, the pilot, immediately found himself heading straight up, just as Jimmy Leeward did. Hannah lost consciousness from the high g-loading, regained his senses as the aircraft rolled over the top, and saved the aircraft.
As reported by AvWeb,
You OK Bob?" called Hinton. "Yea, this thing just popped big time," replied Hannah. What Hannah didn't mention is that the g-load from the quick pull-up had caused him to black out. He finally managed to reach the throttle and reduced Voodoo's power. At that point Hannah radioed that he "(wasn't) out of it yet," but he wasn't thinking clearly. Later, he declared a mayday and made a perfect landing. . . . On the ground one could see what cause Voodoo's problems during the race. The left elevator torque tube failed when the elevator trim fluttered and departed the plane.
It's quite possible that Leeward blacked out just like Hannah did in 1998 but, unlike Hannah, never regained consciousness.
Take a look at the two pictures of Leeward's aircraft, the "Galloping Ghost." The photo on the left is the cockpit before takeoff. Leeward's helmet is clearly visible. The frame on the right is the cockpit during the dive, a second before impact. Leeward is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he is slumped over, unconscious. Regardless, it's hard to imagine that Leeward was in any position to control the aircraft's flight path.
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