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 control 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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