The Reno air race crash - aftermath

by Graham Email

Low level pylon racing in aviation is roughly equivalent to being a circus high-wire artist without a net. There is very little margin for error, you are operating 150 or so feet above the desert floor, and as the old pilot saying goes, one of the most useless things is altitude above you.
The accident that claimed the life of Jimmy Leeward and at least 10 people on the ground is not the first time that a pilot in the Unlimited class has perished in a race heat at Reno. There have been other fatalities over the years. Racing converted and re-engineered World War II machinery at low altitude and high speed is a high-risk endeavour.
There has been much speculation on the cause of the accident. However, out of the usual cloud of superficial media reporting, and speculation, some facts have begun to emerge. An onboard video camera was running in the cockpit of Galloping Ghost during the race, and other video not so far appearing on YouTube has been examined. Here is some informed analysis of the events from a private message board that I am a member of:

...the cause of the crash was due to The Galloping Ghost having a CG too close to the aft limit which resulted in pitch instability. There are instructions on the P-51 regarding no combat missions with the aft fuel tank full resulting in an aft CG problem. Instructions specify to empty the aft fuel tank first in flight.
During qualifying my friend watched Galloping Ghost from inside the cockpit of a following plane and could not believe how much trouble Leeward was having in keeping the Ghost in a stable pattern around the course.
Since Leeward lived in Florida and the Galloping Ghost was modified for racing in California, when Leeward picked up the Ghost for the Reno races at the last minute, a complete flight test program had not been done based on available information.
There is a video of the entire last lap of the Ghost before the crash which my friend showed me. As Leeward was coming around pylon #8 at about 480 mph after passing Rare Bear, he hit turbulence which pitched his left wing down, Leeward corrected with hard right rudder and aileron. Just as the aircraft was straightening out, he hit a second mountain of turbulence which caused the tail to 'dig in' resulting in a 10+ G climb rendering Leeward unconscious instantly and resulted in the tail wheel falling out. (broken tail wheel support structure was found on the course). As the Ghost shot upward the LH aileron trim tab broke loose. This can be heard on the tape, so the trim tab did not cause the accident.
Since the Ghost was racing at 480 mph with full right rudder and the stick full right, this is where everything stayed when Leeward blacked out. Cockpit camera film that was salvaged from the wreck shows Leeward slumped over to the right in the cockpit. As a result, the Ghost climbed up and to the right, rolled over on her back and then headed for the box seats. Most in the box seats never saw it coming because it came in from behind them.

UPDATE - The NTSB has now issued the full final report on the accident.Section 2.1 confirms the tentative conclusion above that events occurring as the plane rounded pylon #8 caused g-loadings on the pilot to exceed levels that any human could tolerate. From the report:

...during the roll events, the airplane also rapidly pitched up. The characteristics of the pitch changes were such that, within about 1 second, the vertical G levels rose from about 3 G to 17.3 G; both the rate of G onset and the high-G level exceeded human tolerance. Based on available guidance, the accident flight’s rapid rate of G onset and the high-G levels were such that the pilot’s time of useful consciousness was likely less than 1 second. During the brief interval before losing consciousness, the pilot’s physical performance would have been limited due to the increased load on his body and extremities and the decreased blood flow to his brain. As a result, the pilot soon became completely incapacitated (which is consistent with photographs showing that the pilot was slumped in the cockpit during the climb), and the airplane’s continued climb and helical descent occurred without his control.

However, the underlying root causes of the accident, which are discussed in the report, may lie in a number of modifications made to the plane to increase it's low-level racing performance, which were subjected to insufficient analysis prior to execution. From Section 1.3.1 of the report:

The reasons for many of the modifications could not be established. Neither the pilot’s family members nor the airplane’s ground crew were aware of any detailed drawings, engineering calculations, or other substantiating data for any of the modifications.

Although the immediate cause of the high-g manouver that incapacitated the pilot was a failure of the elevator pitch trim tab assembly, photos in the report show several instances of deformation of other parts of the airframe structure both during the accident flight and earlier flights at the same event. The photos show an airframe that was being highly stressed by a race duty cycle far in excess of anything that the airframe had ever been subjected to in any prior racing activity. Section

A comparison of information from the accident race, previous races, and qualification flights (all flown by the accident pilot) showed that the airplane’s maximum 458-knot GPS ground speed between pylons 6 and 7 during the accident flight was the fastest that the airplane had flown on the course by about 35 knots. The accident flight had the highest engine manifold pressure and rpm (compared with all previous flights for which there were data) by about 15 to 20 inches of mercury and about 100 to 150 rpm, respectively.

Plane Work Program - Winter-Spring 2012-2013

by Graham Email

Here is the work list for Fall and Winter, in no particular sequence:

1. Repairs and fixes
- Repair damage to landing gear attach points (BIG JOB)
- Activate emergency landing gear extension circuit (has been out of action since replacement of control board by relays, cause unknown)
- Refit radio and transponder mounting tray to assure continued operation in flight (this was a major source of distress last Summer, when you cannot rely on your most important communications instruments that greatly increases in-flight stress)
- Replace rubber engine hoses with Teflon hoses for improved engine compartment durability and safety
- Refinish Catto prop (numerous small dings on prop over the last 6 years)
- Install heat detection strips on prop spinner parts to track in-flight heating (I do not race the plane, so excessive heating is unlikely, but in view of reports of heat concentration I will start tracking this)

2. Utility and Operation Improvements
- Build replacement lightweight lower cowling to replace aerodynically sub-optimal current cowling
- Install oil cooler cabin heat system in nose of plane (PROJECT)
- Replace nose battery with lightweight Odyssey battery on firewall
- Install oil cooler in nose with safety-protected oil supply and return circuit from engine
- Install fan and custom hardware to recirculate cabin air through cooler and route heat to front and rear seats
- Replace existing ELT with new-specification ELT installed in spar box instead of rear passenger area
- Polish canopy to remove scratches and glaze
- Install rear-facing mirrors in cockpit to provide view of back seat (I keep interrupting Mary in flight while she is snoozing)
- Install Collision Avoidance instrumentation
- Lose weight from pilot (currently 235-40, needs to be 210)

3. Possible projects (undecided)
- Extend strakes up to front of cockpit (pontoon design derived from Paul Tackabury Long-EZ). This will open up the cockpit in front for the pilot, who is not a small guy (PROJECT)
- Install Ellison throttle body injector in place of Marvel Schebler tractor, carburetor
- Install Trio three-axis autopilot to replace current two-axis NavAid

this blog has been asleep since the plane has been resting

by Graham Email

Getting back to thinking about flying...N131JF has been sleeping since last October, when a hard landing at Lancaster damaged the landing gear attachment points. I was landing a heavy plane in gusty conditions, and the sink rate on final suddenly increased because I was too slow, and I was half a second late on throttling up. We only just hit the ground, but the impact was hard, sufficient to give Mary a shock, and it turned out that it was sufficient to damage the attachment points. After initially hitting the runway, I lifted off, settled the plane and touched down with what seemed like an uneventful rollout and taxi-back to the hangar. I did not notice the damage until I went to park the plane in the hangar, when I felt the gear moving forwards and backwards under the plane as I lifted the nose.
A brief examination of the damage through the "hell hole" by Jesse and myself a few days after the incident, led to the tentative conclusion that the spruce bases of the landing gear attachments had already been damaged in a previous hard landing (probably the hard landing at New Bight in the Bahamas in 2009). This latest hard landing completed the job, so to speak. We will find out for sure whether that was the sequence of events, once the plane is readied for repair, which will probably involve removing the existing wooden mounting points for the gear, along with a lot of bonding layups.
Major work pressure in the Fall and Winter prevented immediate start on the repairs, although I have all of the materials procured and awaiting use. Since the start of 2012 we have been busy with working on house projects and other stuff such as Getting Married.
Repairs and TLC on the plane will start this Fall and continue through the winter, with the objective to have the plane up and running in improved form by Spring 2013.
There were a number of squawks and operational limitations on the plane that have crept in over the years, which had made regular flight operations stressful. Those will be addressed this Winter, the goal being to have a squawk-free plane with no worries in the cockpit, allowing the focus to be on flight execution and enjoyment.

The latest squawk - a defective Air Speed Indicator

by Graham Email

A few weeks ago, I decided to give Gerhard (he of Gerhard's Flying Service, McKinney TX, flying instruction to the masses) a new check-out in the Long-EZ.
I duly gave him the front seat and we took off from Sherman Municipal and headed out towards Lake Texoma. After about 10 minutes Gerhard came on the intercom:
"You have a problem with your ASI".
Sure enough, it was stuck at 105 KTIAS. When we assumed a slow flight configuration, the needle would drop below 105, but it moved erratically.
We completed the checkout maneouvers uneventfully, but then on the first landing approach, we ended up high and long on final, so declared a go-around. The second time, Gerhard touched down some way down the runway, but with Grove brakes on the plane, we stopped pretty quickly.
Gerhard then took the plane out solo. He came back 50 minutes later to report that, based on his slow flight testing, the ASI was reading at least 10 knots slow at the lower end of the speed range. He had slowed the plane nose-up to just over 50 KTIAS, and the canard had showed no signs of stalling. Normally the canard stalls ony my plane at 62 KTIAS, so this was an indication that the ASI was defective.
The ASI issue also explained why I have been floating on final and suffering long roll-outs in recent months. If the ASI is reading 10 knots low, then I would have been landing at 76 knots instead of 66 knots. That represents a lot more kinetic energy on landing, longer rollout, and more brake and tire wear. I had been noticing that the current set of tires were wearing much faster than the previous set, which lasted until sidewall deterioration led to me replacing them 3 years ago. I expected slightly greater wear on the tires due to the better brakes, but the wear rate has been quite a lot greater, to the extent that I will be replacing these tires at the next Annual.
I had the ASI tested in the plane at Lancaster by the on-field avionics shop. They confirmed that it was reading low up to 105 KTIAS, after which point it jammed. Their verdict was an internal component failure.
After taking advice about the ASI, I decided to replace it with a new ASI, since the cost of repair would be almost as high as the cost of a new ASI. This ASI had been in the plane since 1993. I have purchased a replacement ASI from Wicks with a density altitude calibration option. The new ASI was a straight swap out from the the old one, although, as is normal, the tight packaging in the nose of the plane meant some fun as we maneouvered the old and new ASIs around.
Flight testing and calibration is scheduled for Labor Day weekend.

Fixing of squawks on N131JF

by Graham Email

With some Summer trips planned soon (although sadly not the West Coast Tour, postponed for the year due to work pressures), I decided to put N131JF in the shop (more correctly, at J&S Aviation in Sherman) for some work. Specifically:

1. Resolution to a worsening oil leak in the engine compartment, that was beginning to coat the engine after every flight. The turning point came when I found that the top of the engine cylinder fins was becoming coated with a film of oil, the leak having worsened to the point that the oil was making its way up through the cooling fins to the topside of the engine.
2. Replacement of hoses from the oil cooler to the oil filter. Those hoses were 14 years old, past the replacement date for rubber hoses.
3. Resolution of a transmit issue with the radio, whereby the transmission range from the radio had dropped to 100 yards on the ground, and tranmissions in the pattern were illegible to just about anybody in the air or on the ground.

I therefore flew the plane to Sherman, and, after showing John Hooker how to start the engine so that he could ground-run it to find the source of leaks, I left it there for the week.

The oil leak turned out to be mostly due to a failed gasket around the blanking plate installed over the right magneto hole in the accessory case, this magneto having been removed when the engine was modified to use a Jeff Rose ignition system.
The hoses were replaced with nice new rubber hoses and fittings.
The radio transmit issue turned out to be due to the connection inside the radio tray to the coax socket coming adrift, due to a circlip having lost all of its spring capability. We tried to re-use the circlip but it kept opening. So into the trash bin it went and a new circlip that had some spring capability was used instead. Problem solved.

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