- Associated Press - Monday, August 27, 2012

LAS VEGAS — A plane that crashed into spectators at an air race in Reno last year bore modifications that weakened its structure and showed evidence that it was flown beyond its limits, investigators said Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board deemed the failure of a tail structure to be the probable cause of the crash of the souped-up World War II-era P-51 Mustang fighter that killed pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 people on the ground at last year’s National Championship Air Races in Reno and injured more than 70.

The pilot also was blamed for failing to fully document and test extensive modifications to the aircraft before the September 2011 crash.

Board member Robert Sumwalt said: “If you want to go out and fly fast and try to win, that’s one thing. If you’re modifying an aircraft without fully understanding how the modifications can affect the aerodynamics, you’re playing Russian roulette.”

Structural modifications of the aircraft dubbed the Galloping Ghost made it lighter and reduced drag, according to the NTSB report. But flight control modifications also made the aircraft less stable. The NTSB found that an elevator trim tab malfunction created aerodynamic instability that made the plane uncontrollable.

High-resolution photos show the skin wrinkling and the canopy separating from the plane seconds before the crash, and NTSB investigators later found loose screws in the crucial tail assembly.

At a board hearing in Washington, chairwoman Deborah Hersman blamed the 74-year-old pilot, Mr. Leeward, for “operating at the edge of the envelope.”

NTSB officials say the 530 mph that Mr. Leeward reached during a qualifying race was about 40 mph faster than he had ever gone before.

His age and physical condition weren’t considered significant factors in the crash, but officials were critical of his record-keeping.

The air race championship, entering its 49th year, is the only event of its kind in the world. It draws thousands every year to Reno Stead Airport, where it features aircraft flying at speeds of more than 500 mph sometimes wingtip-to-wingtip around an oval pylon track.

Some critics called for ending the event, but organizers pressed forward with plans for this year’s races amid promises that most NTSB safety recommendations would be implemented.



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