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Air safety board warns racers over deadly crash

Encourages flight suits, practice run

Ward Howes/Associated Press

In September, Jimmy Leeward’s P-51 Mustang crashed near a VIP viewing area. Eleven died and more than 70 were hurt.

RENO - Air race pilots should take their modified aircraft on a dry run before participating in certain competitions and should possibly wear flight suits to help withstand high gravitational forces, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The recommendations were among seven the board offered in Reno nearly six months after a crash at the Reno National Championship Air Races killed 11 people and seriously injured more than 70 spectators.

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“We are not here to put a stop to air racing,’’ said Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “We are here to make it safer.’’

Investigators are still trying to piece together why Jimmy Leeward’s souped-up P-51 Mustang rocketed straight up before pitching nose first onto the tarmac just feet from a VIP viewing area on Sept. 16.

Officials said a final report will be issued before this year’s air races, scheduled for September.

Intense scrutiny will be given to those last seconds of the doomed flight, when Leeward’s plane banked going around the eighth pylon on the third lap of a six-lap race. It veered back to the right, shot up, and rolled over before slamming into the ground in front of horrified spectators.

“That 8 or 9 seconds is going to get a lot of written words’’ in the final report, said Howard Plagens, the lead investigator.

The safety board said telemetry data showed the plane was traveling 530 miles per hour when it pitched violently upward, exerting a force of at least nine times the normal force of gravity on the pilot’s body, or 9 Gs, which appears to have incapacitated the pilot as blood rushed from his brain.

Leeward, 74, was not wearing a special G-suit as he piloted the World War II-era aircraft.

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