As I'm sure you've heard by now, the NTSB recently published its final report on last year's crash of Galloping Ghost, the highly modified P-51 flown by veteran racer Jimmy Leeward, which killed 11 people and injured more than 60. The report confirmed what many had suspected: the crash was precipitated by the flutter-induced failure of a trim-tab actuating mechanism. This caused the airplane to roll and pitch up uncontrollably, subjecting the pilot to approximately 17 G of acceleration and damaging the aircraft structure. At that point, with the pilot incapacitated and the aircraft out of control, the resulting crash was a foregone conclusion. The report's statement of probable cause includes the following:
"Aerodynamic flutter of the trim tabs resulted in a failure of the left trim tab link assembly, elevator movement, high flight loads, and a loss of control. Contributing to the accident were the undocumented and untested major modifications to the airplane and the pilot's operation of the airplane in the unique air racing environment without adequate flight testing."
Flutter, the resonant vibration of a control surface at high speeds, can occur on any aircraft when it's flown beyond its tested maximum speed, and the NTSB report noted that during the race, Galloping Ghost was flying approximately 35 knots faster than it had ever flown before. In effect, the fateful race was the flight test of the many speed modifications that Leeward had made to the airplane.
Contributing to the flutter were deteriorated lock-nut inserts on the trim-tab assembly. Apparently, the lock nuts had been reused as the trim tab was disassembled and reassembled multiple times. If you've done any maintenance on airplanes, you know that nylon lock nuts are single-use parts. Reusing them damages the nylon, weakening their locking strength.
With these and other serious errors outlined in such detail, many have leveled strong judgments against Mr. Leeward, and I don't feel a need to add to those judgments here. For me, the most important question is this: how could anyone make such decisions and take such actions, knowing the enormous risks to which he was exposing himself and others?
If I'm honest with myself, I know the answer. The capacity for such serious errors and lapses in judgment is only too human. All pilots can think of times (probably many times) when they allowed fixation or obsession to tempt them into bad decisions. In this blog, I've relayed stories of dumb choices that I've made, including continuing flight into questionable weather, choosing to fly over inhospitable terrain, and continuing landing approaches when I should have gone around. Any one of those incidents could have had a very bad outcome for myself and my passengers.
And of course the NTSB database and the "never again" articles in our aviation magazines are filled with stories of pilots who succumbed to "get-there-itis," fuel mismanagement, and other forms of poor judgment that led them to grief. Jimmy Leeward's lapses of judgment may have been greater than most, but they were not of a fundamentally different nature. If we forget or deny this fact, we do so at our peril.
There's no two ways about it—the crash of Galloping Ghost was a horrible, senseless tragedy that should never have happened. It's up to all of us who fly to salvage something positive from it: a commitment to hold our own decision making to as a high a standard as possible—for ourselves, for our passengers, for the public—and out of respect for this craft of flying that we are privileged to practice.
When reading a story like Jimmy Leeward's, I must always remember that yes, it could happen to me—and if don't consciously and diligently execute my responsibilities as pilot in command, eventually it will.