©2012 by Tim Kern
“The first question I have to ask,” said our government's presenter, is, “is anyone here a member of the media?” I raised my hand. “I'll have to ask you to leave. My boss says I can't have any press in here.”
“I'm interested in safety,” I said, “and I'm also a pilot.”
“Sorry, I can't have any press in here.”
“Guess I'll just have to make something up,” I said, loudly enough for him to hear clearly. He looked at me with surprise. “Maybe you can help me with it when this is over.” He nodded that would be OK. I left.
On the screen was the NTSB logo and a title about last year's crash at the Reno Air Races. That's the topic; the contents will have to wait until the NTSB wants you to know.
Note that no one else was excluded. Pilots, mechanics, volunteers – all were invited, except press. I wonder if that's NTSB policy, or if they just don't want people to know what happened when the Galloping Ghost left the race course and fell into the edge of the crowd, killing pilot/owner Jimmy Leeward and ten spectators, and injuring scores more.
Since the crash, a year has passed. Hundreds of rumors have come up, and just as many theories. Some of those theories were absurd. Some were plausible. But the thing that would help us learn from the accident would be the investigation, just completed by the NTSB, with input from dozens of sources, including photographers of all types, from pros to cell-phone picture-takers; from telemetry the team gathered; and from other eyewitness reports. Press was prohibited from having this information, and thus from sharing it with you.
As I watched the horror unfold on September 16, 2011, I made mental notes about what I saw, knowing that this was no normal event. At the first big upset and as the plane veered right and over the stands, I said, loudly, to no one in particular, “What the hell is he [pilot Jimmy Leeward] doing?” A couple seconds later, as the Mustang was stopped in the air, searching for a direction to take, I said (to the same generic listener, since no one was anywhere near me), “There's nobody flying that airplane!” That turned out to be the case. Race #177 foundered in a lomcevak; its nose dropped through, and it began a near-vertical dive toward the runway. However, that dive had started over the stands, and the plane didn't fully clear the last, front row of spectators.
The impact was tremendous. Of the airplane, only a basketball-sized part of the engine's gearbox and a couple wheels were readily recognizable; of the rest, as one observer said, “There was nothing left, bigger than a cell phone.”
The FAA and NTSB quickly went to work, and the NTSB labored nearly a year on this, their most-complicated case yet (TWA Flight 800 included, as so much of that investigation was done under FBI and CIA supervision). What they found surprised no one, except perhaps in the extent of the contributing factors they found.
The official report, issued in late August, was accompanied by an hour and a half seminar/presentation (the “Board meeting”), during which a few additional insights were revealed.
In April, long before the NTSB finished its report, the agency made a series of recommendations for future air races, at the traditional venue at Reno Stead in particular. One made total sense; a few were good ideas, and a few more showed (to many experienced pilots) a significant lack of understanding of what goes on in an air race, and how racers are constructed, and of racers themselves. Some were just impossible.
Still, when the findings of the accident investigation became public, many of us were surprised. “Shocked” would be too strong a word; we're realists. But the number of bad ideas, poor practices, stretches of credibility, and just plain cheapness or oversight – these were astounding.
OK – some things that were done wrong on Jimmy Leeward's plane were known to have been wrong, or should have been known to the most junior mechanic. Improper oversight, sloppy practices, crew fatigue – whatever the reason, these don't have to be re-examined. We already know they're wrong. Would proper attention to these items have averted the accident? Well, such attention and compliance certainly would have helped.
Two separate things need to be understood: one concerns the aircraft itself, where the rules, regulations, and practices are well-known and sound, if not (as in this case) always followed.
The second, the design of the race course (and its rationale), were explained to me in some depth by the FAA as recently as the 2010 race. Scatter patterns, potential kinetic energy from various weights, altitudes, and velocities of aircraft – all these things were carefully analyzed by the best in the world, I was assured. Yet when the airplane failed, ten spectators died. All the calculations were irrelevant, because the airplane left the course.
All the NTSB's recommendations, made with great profundity in April (before the accident investigation was complete), would have done nothing to have prevented the spectators' deaths and injuries in this case, given the failure and action of the Galloping Ghost. A perfectly-designed course and state-of-the-art spectator protection afford little relief, when an airplane leaves the course. A disintegrating airplane is not controllable, and a disintegrating airplane that lands on spectators will cause casualties.
Can some recommendations help reduce casualties in the future? Some can; let's adopt those. Of the April recommendations, only “move the fuel truck away from the spectators” would help. Others, true also of some questions posed during the Board meeting, show these experts' basic lack of understanding of even the most-basic parameters of aircraft design, and maintenance, or of pilot training and experience.
That is not to say that the investigation itself was flawed. The examination of the evidence, photographic and empirical, was thorough and professional. It seems, though, once the actual investigators turned their work over to the higher-ups in the bureaucracy, these bureaucrats felt compelled to say something.
Surely, adherence to best practices in aircraft design, construction, inspection, and maintenance will help prevent these types of accidents, from the “airplane side” of the equation. The “race course” side will always be vulnerable to the uncontrollable – like when an airplane leaves he course.
Racing is inherently dangerous. By its very nature, racing stretches human understanding, technology, and experience. Any modern passenger car could have won he inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911, but modern passenger cars would not be what they are, without the contributions developed in and from racing.
Any time racing is limited, so is the ability to experiment, or to learn; and ultimately improvements themselves slow and grind to a halt. Bureaucrats don't understand this, and continue on their mission to bubble-wrap everything and everyone in the interest of safety.
Bubble wrap smothers whatever is inside. That includes the human spirit.
Links to official releases:
NTSB Accident Report: http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/brief.aspx?ev_id=20110917X22412&key=1
[full report] http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/reports/2012/AAB1201.pdf
NTSB Board Meeting (seminar, August, 2012): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMmhOkXQB0s
NTSB Recommendations (April, 2012): http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/recletters/2012/A-12-013-017.pdf
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