The P-51 Mustang had a dicey record at the Reno Air Races even before last Friday. One pilot was killed in 1994 when his P-51 crashed next to the runway. Then another in 1999, when one broke apart in the air, scattering debris and damaging a house.
When it comes to aviation, it's hard to top Jim Lockridge's 55-year flying experience and love of flying. He crop-dusted his way through college, flew air force fighters for 13 years and then commercial airliners for 29. Now in Reno, he's written for Aviation Safety Magazine, and is a big fan of the P-51 Mustang. "It's a beautiful airplane. It flies beautifully. Pilots love it. And we won a war with it."
The P-51 Mustang was designed as a fighter and used in World War 2. Some have called it the plane that destroyed the Nazi Luftwaffe. But its role at the Reno Air Races is different: flying at speeds surpassing 500 miles per hour, racing in what's called an "Indianapolis 500 in the sky."
Planes at the air races are modified. But with about a million dollars in prize money up for grabs, pilots could be pushing their planes beyond their limits to win. In Lockridge's view, "We have airplanes where everyone is trying to break a record every time they go out there, trying to fly it faster than its ever been flown before. As a result of that, you're getting past the design limitations."
Lockridge's theory of Friday's crash centers around a picture showing a piece falling of the wing of Jimmy Leeward's plane. Lockridge says "It's a separating trim tab from the back of the P-51. And this has happened before in other air races in other places." The elevator trim tab controls the plane's pitch. He says this would have caused the plane to pop vertically, as it did, enough to black out the pilot. "I suspect that he did not come to, to do anything about it."
Jim Lockridge still thinks the P-51 is a beautiful machine. But he'd rather see newer planes designed to take on today's races over the classics. "We've got these old antiques, these old airplanes, and they're absolutely wonderful relics. We're out there beating them up."
As for Jimmy Leeward's age of 74, Lockridge says it's irrelevant, even though the F.A.A. has a mandatory retirement age of 65 for commercial airline pilots. "He had absolutely no control over what happened, and age was definitely not a factor in my mind."
Tuesday, June 18 2013 12:40 AM EDT2013-06-18 04:40:59 GMT
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