Hall of Fame aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff says that it was just bad luck that Jimmy Leeward’s accident involved spectators.

At the speeds Leeward was moving, had the malfunction occurred four seconds earlier or later, or almost anywhere else on the course, it would have terminated in the desert.  This was not an accident waiting to happen – this was a freak accident.

Patty, this was not the first time that flutter sent a highly modified warbird out of Patty Wagstaffecontrol during the Reno Air Races.  It happened 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, but regained his senses as the aircraft rolled over the top.  Unlike Leeward, Hannah landed safely.

So, though it’s too early to say for certain, it looks like Leeward’s precise airframe failure — or something pretty darn close — actually happened before.  And sure, Leeward’s failure could have just as easily occurred somewhere else along the nine mile course, and not at show center. But that doesn’t make it a "freak accident," any more than losing at Russian Roulette can be considered a freak accident. 

Nope. This was an accident waiting to happen.

The warbird pilots push their aircraft to their limits and beyond.  That’s why it’s called "Unlimited" racing.  No one would deny pilots, fully aware of the risks they are taking, the right to fly their aircraft to the point of destruction.  It is, after all, their own lives that they are risking over the Nevada desert.  But they should not be permitted to place spectators at risk.  Pilots might be willing to flirt with death.  But that’s not what spectators bargain for.

Sorry, Patty.  Leeward’s crash was no "freak accident."  And suggesting it was is not fair to the victims.


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  • Dan Wiese

    Might I add that the spectator involvement is CLEARLY indictaed on the ticket they “CHOOSE” to purchase… “In accepting this ticket, holder assumes all risk incident to these races and releases operators, employees, and agents from all claims. No refunds.”
    I still have my ticket, and yes although unfortunate, it is a risk we all take KNOWING when we walk through the gate. Gee, I wonder if NASA knew these satalights would one day crash into Earth? Or is this “Just a Freak Accident”?

  • wjdavid

    Sorry, Patty. Leeward’s crash was no “freak accident.” And suggesting it was is not fair to the victims…. Not fair to the lawyers is what he really means.

  • Mike Danko

    You bring up an interesting point. If you find yourself near a scanner, please email a copy of your ticket to me and I will post it. The ticket isn’t an agreement because it is not signed by the patron. But it is worth discussing.

  • Dan Wiese

    I believe, and I’m no lawyer, that Knowledge of writing and of terms such as if the recipient of the ticket knew that there was writing on the ticket and also knew that the ticket contained terms, then the recipient is bound by the terms of the contract, signed or not.
    The “Box” tickets such as mine, are different than those who buy “General Admission” Tickets which I would believe fall into what I mentioned above. “Box seats are special purchased under many more guidlines and accepted responsabilities.
    The reality is this, If the recipient of the ticket did not know of the existence of the terms, then I would think the court will consider whether a “reasonable person” would have known that the ticket contained terms. If that is so, then the ticket-holder is bound by those terms, if not, then the court would have to decide whether reasonable notice of the terms was given.In this case I believe yes. I stated in my previous post exactly what is on the back of my ticket. And yes, I read it and I reasonably accepted the fact that I am taking a risk by attending this event. Just as I take a risk everytime I put my airplane away and get into my truck and drive down the road never knowing if your tire blows out and you may cross the center line into my path. Now THAT’s a scarry thought.

  • Mike Danko


    If the patron hasn’t signed something binding him to it, then a court won’t find what’s printed on the ticket to mean anything at all.

    Your tire example is an interesting one. As you say, you accept that there are risks every time you get in your truck and drive home from the airport. But if it turns out that the tire blows out because a mechanic put it on wrong, the mechanic should be held accountable for the injuries you suffered as a result. And if the tire blows out because the other driver continued to ride on it knowing it was bald, then the driver should be held accountable. The fact that you accepted that there are risks doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held responsible for their conduct when that conduct causes you injury.

  • Aviator

    Mike, I seldom agree with you, but on this occasion I do. First, while Patty Wagstaff may be a very qualified pilot, her recent legal issues suggest a lack of good judgement. Her voice is tainted.

    Second, the issues of this accident will undoubtedly be resolved in a courtroom. When that happens, a wide net will be cast and every part of the pilot’s life and his plane’s maintenance history will be scrutinized. So will the actions of the FAA and the race organizers. The outcome will be interesting.

  • RWilliams

    “Freak accident” is code for “People who made money off this event should be able to turn their back on the customers who were hurt.”

  • Mike Danko


    As you say, the issues will ultimately be resolved through the legal system. Not through the NTSB.

  • Algy F Giles

    My partner and I own a company by the name

    of AVGRP03.LLC in Fruitland, MD. (Aviation Specialist)

    We have published a book that speaks to “Progressive Aviation Engineering” in aviation maintenance engineering and maintenance.

    Our input to the changes of Reno Racer Aircraft are:

    1) It is understood that the original design of the an aircraft
    is set in the previous design limits (airworthy controllability with the structure that was built in the aircraft in it’s basic form)

    2) Using that basic premise, safety verifications should be made with modern known testing methods.

    a. Any major design structure changes that occurred in the fatal Reno Racer P51 should have been tested for design changes in a certified Wind tunnel that is documentedfor the speed regime that is expected.

    b. All parameters of flight should be evaluated. (MAX Airspeed, Stall Threshold in the all flight control deflections).

    c. State-of-the-Art Flight Recorders and Voice Recorders must be installed on the aircraft before it can be flown in a event. GPS NAV required w/ voice activated microphone communication in minimum requirement.

    d. Control sensors should be installed to give the recorders the maximum data for flight verification as used to report the multi-changes in throttle position, flight control movement and landing gear configurations.

    3) No aircraft should ever make a turn towards the Crowd Spectators Area.

    A Multi-mile straight Line Time Trail for the racers with a maximum distance from the Crowd Spectators Area.(Home Pylon)

    (Pylons separated by the respective aircraft to make a time trail pass)

    4) Last not the least, a qualified design team should be trained to the design changes that are built into these aircraft. The safety team should be much like NASCAR team that evaluates the cars in NASCAR events. This National Aviation Safety Aircraft “NASAC” team should consist of the persons that has knowledge parameters that is expected to be verified.(Acronymic Structure Specialist, Powerplant Specialist, Fluid Engineers (aviation fuel, oil and hydraulic qualified) FAA NTSB qualified.

    This may be a very strict and expensive process to be put in place. The cost of ten lives and many more injured with some lasting injuries proves the case that Aircraft Racing
    should be brought into the 21st Century. I am sure the Aircraft Racing Community will have a major push-back with some the restrictions suggested. ( It is going to be expensive to qualify an aircraft).

    Offered in the memory of those that perished at Reno 2011.

    Algy F Giles Jr. FAA Retired

    AVGRP03, LLC

    123 Ridgefield Ln

    Fruitland, MD 21826

    Phone 410-334-3842


  • Dan Wiese

    Mr. Giles,
    I beleieve that is why the class is called “Unlimited”. I’m guessing 9 out of every 10 ticket purchasers are there to see (and Witeness) the “UN-Limited” machines race. If not we all be sitting behind our television sets watching pre-recorded Red Bull races held with no spectators. To think reasonable about an “Airplane race” How far away would you put a spectator? For instance if we mandate as many regulations to the racers and planes as you are suggesting and make these airplanes “perfectly” safe, do you realize that these airplanes still have enough fuel to fly to downtown Reno and back over 5 times before they finish a 6 lap race. So where do we draw the line guys? If you suggest they fly windtunnel proven aircraft far enough from a vulnerable spectator, then again, we will be watching them from our comfort zones in our houses smoking cigarettes long enough to sue the tobacco companies for their neglegence, including Hydroplane races, the Indy 500, or getting hit with a baseball at a San Fran Giants Game. Let’s face it, we can find neglegence in everything.

  • “Koala” Brown

    Hello M. Danko,

    Having read your posts concerning the Reno accident, I must say you have some valid and intelligent points regarding the legal issues surrounding the crash.

    What strikes me are the comments such as your reply to Patty Wagstaff’s “freak accident” comment.

    But why make theses posts?

    Is it some personal grudge against Mr. Leeward or Mrs. Wagstaff? I suppose not, but one never knows.

    The only sense I can make out of these posts is that you’re simply playing and escalading the situation. If you were a lawyer specialized in aviation accidents, I actually might start thinking you’re putting oil on the fire in order to attract customers. Thank God, that can’t be true.

    It would really be vile behaviour for anyone to try and use such a tragedy for personal gain, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Long life to the people with 20/20 hindsight and to those who never take any decision or responsibility, simply waiting to sue somebody who has and failed, whether he’s been negligent or simply honest and unlucky. The results might often be the same, but the causes are different. Oh, well, let’s screw morality and make some money.

    Best regards,

    “Koala” Brown

  • Mike Danko

    Koala –

    Thanks for your post. The points you raise are fair.

    Aviation law is what I do. I like to think that my work has made aviation a little bit safer for everybody all around. In fact, I know it has. Products have been improved, maintenance manuals have been changed, and policies have been rewritten. Lives, I believe, have been saved. So I don’t apologize for suing those who injure others. Is there personal gain in what I do? Sometimes, sure. Sometimes not so much. I think I made more money years ago when I was representing banks and other wall street interests. But that’s another story.

    On to your questions about why I wrote the “hero” post and the “freak accident” post.

    First, the “hero post.” After a fatal crash, newspapers love to report that the pilot was a hero for veering away from a hospital or schoolyard just before impact. As a pilot who has had his share of emergencies, I can say it just ain’t so. The reason you want to avoid the hospital is because it’s hard and pointy. And you can’t even see the schoolyard.

    Just as it’s unfair to lay blame where it doesn’t belong, it’s unfair to make someone a hero who wasn’t. And it is an insult to the victims. Should the victims be thanking the one who potentially caused them harm?

    Many people were calling Leeward a hero. I’m not saying he did something wrong at this point, I’m just saying he wasn’t a hero and its disrespectful to the victims to say that he was.

    Next, the “freak accident” post. As RWilliams noted above, by calling something a “freak accident” you mean that it couldn’t have been avoided and no one is to blame. Again, that is unfair to the victims. Moreover, when an accident is a “freak” accident, the implication is that nothing need be done to ensure it won’t happen again. In other words, calling something a “freak accident” is like telling everyone to go about their business, move on, go home and ask no more questions.

    The Reno crash does not appear to have been a freak accident. It was an accident waiting to happen. It needs to be examined. Closely. If something isn’t done, it (or something like it) can happen again.

    I don’t want to see that. I don’t think anyone does.

  • Dan Wiese

    “The Reno crash does not appear to have been a freak accident. It was an accident waiting to happen.”

    Then why Mike haven’t we seen “Accident Preventive” Lawyers make that case before they feed on what has already happened? Instead of trying to prevent something from happening again, why not find a way to prevent something from happening at all. Take the pedestrian OUT of the equasion or the crosswalk or the car, and eliminate any possability of the neglegant responsability all together? After all that would be the safest thing to do. It’s a win/win. Nobody get’s hurt and nobody prospers and only then can “everyone to go about their business, move on, go home and ask no more questions.”

  • Mike Danko


    Accident prevention attorneys *do* speak out to try to prevent accidents from happening before people are injured. Those guys are generally ignored.

    Here’s one speaking out about a gas company’s dangerous underground system in 2009. Nobody did much. 15 months later, the company’s pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California killing 8 and injuring hundreds of others.

    Then there’s the Accident Prevention Attorney who went to the California state legislature to get laws past that would warn consumers about the age of the tires they were purchasing as “new” so that consumers could make their own choice about whether they wanted to put 12 year-old tires on their vehicles. Again, nobody listened. So a woman was sold a 10-year old tire as new and it detreaded in Montana, causing an accident that injured her son.

    I’ve got lots of other stories. Bottom line is that it’s lawsuits, not safety advocacy, that bring about real change. Unfortunately, lawsuits can be brought only after the fact.

    Wish it were otherwise.

  • tom

    Anyone who thinks watching a WWII modified race airplane going 500 mph sometimes 50 feet off the ground is safe is living in the “Fools Land” depicted in that Prius commercial where all the flowers are people.

    Implied Culpability.

    That defense was outlawed by the Florida legislature for any tobacco company defending itself in a Florida court.

    You see Implied Culpability means you don’t need to read the obvious statement of danger and risk that is printed on packs of cigarettes.

    Sorry, you are an adult. You had an education. You took Physics in High School.

    Danger is obvious at an air race.

    On the other hand, if a new car has a tendency to explode when you turn the ignition key, THEN, you might have cause to sue someone.

  • James Barnett

    This is one time I’m not in agreement with Patty. I do enjoy her piloting skills, but know this. Accidents are preventable. It is very rare to have one with all measurable safety in place including aircraft inspections. An investigation should find reason.

  • Patrick

    As a Pilot and Aircraft Mechanic for 30 yrs. My question is about the lack of common sense,to approve a 74 yr old pilot to fly @ 500 MPH 50 feet from the ground. Being at the races in 2000 and in the stands I can remember my first impression and thoughts where as the planes came around that last pylon ” man they are right at stadium height and if something happened and they didnt turn completely as they pass the finish line, the planes could be in the stands”. But, as a adult I was aware of the risks of attending, and I agree with some of the previous coments regarding risk. It’s everywhere cant avoid all of it!