Reno accident probe examines memory cards, telemetry

September 19, 2011

National Transportation Safety Board investigators on the scene of the crash of Jimmy Leeward’s P-51 racing aircraft at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., said that memory cards found at the scene might provide key details of the accident sequence.

Leeward’s racer Galloping Ghost was equipped with a camera system and another system that recorded “multiple variables” both on memory cards and using telemetry, investigators said. Data from the systems could help shed light on what caused the airplane to crash into the box seat area in front of the main grandstand, causing dozens of injuries and multiple fatalities.

The Reno Police Department confirmed Tuesday that the death toll had risen to 11; the preliminary NTSB report released Sept. 23 said that 74 people on the ground were injured, 66 of them seriously. A Reno newspaper reported Monday that three victims remained in critical condition at Renown Medical Center. Another was upgraded from critical condition to fair condition. Twenty-four of the 37 patients admitted to Renown had been released as of Monday morning, the report said.

Other news reports included interviews with survivors who said that a coordinated rescue effort by medically trained spectators, first responders, and others on the scene probably saved many lives after the modified P-51crashed from a near-vertical dive in front of a box-seat viewing area.

“We are deeply saddened by this tragedy,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been affected. The most important thing right now is to care for the victims of this terrible crash. There is no point in speculating about the cause at this point. The NTSB will conduct a thorough investigation and we will await their findings.”

Leeward’s racer was equipped with a camera system and a system that recorded “multiple variables” both on memory cards and by transmitting telemetry data to the racing crew, NTSB member Mark Rosekind told a news briefing Sept. 18.

Leeward’s racer was equipped with a camera system and a system that recorded “multiple variables” both on memory cards and by transmitting telemetry data to the racing crew, Rosekind said.  The NTSB’s accident investigator in charge, Howard Plagens, estimated that several dozen variables were recorded by the system. By comparison, an airliner’s flight data recorders document several thousand performance parameters.

Graves cautions against heightened airshow regs

U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), co-chair of the Congressional GA Caucus and a pilot of vintage aircraft, cautioned against any rush in Congress to react to the tragedy in Reno by imposing new regulations on airshows.

“Within the past month, the aviation community has seen several accidents that have led to the deaths of veteran pilots and spectators. Every loss of life is a tragedy, and we grieve for those who have lost their lives or have been injured,” he said. “However, just as surely as night follows day, there will be claims that more regulations are needed for air shows. Simply put, they are not.”

“There hasn’t been a spectator fatality at an air show in more than 60 years,” he said in a statement.

Graves added that “every pilot knows the risks every time they slide into a cockpit.” He urged his congressional colleagues “to avoid the typical knee-jerk, federal government stampede to regulate general aviation simply because they are in the news this week.”

Many of the memory cards found at the scene were in good enough condition to be sent to a lab for analysis. It remained to be determined how many of the memory cards found had been aboard the aircraft.

Rosekind said that both structural and medical information could be derived from the data. Mechanical variables included engine oil pressure and temperature, he said.

“This is very significant for the accident investigation,” Rosekind said.

The memory cards, which were the same type as memory cards used in video cameras, would be sent to a research laboratory in Washington, D.C., for analysis, he said. In response to a question during the briefing, Rosekind said that investigators knew that the telemetry system transmitted real-time data, but they did not yet know how often the system sent or recorded its measurements. Investigators also were collecting video and photographic images taken at the time of crash by race spectators. A focus of the inquiry was the aircraft’s tail section, to determine whether a trim tab or other component had separated from the aircraft.

Rosekind addressed questions about the tail component cautiously, explaining that the NTSB materials lab would have to confirm that any components found were from the accident aircraft. Then the pieces would be studied to determine if any “fault or problem” might have been associated with the accident.

Part of the reason that investigators focused on a component found by investigators was that “it was at least in the vicinity of where people observed a piece possibly being part of this accident sequence,” he said.

Rosekind said that reporters were “getting a sense of the complexity” of an accident investigation from the officials’ responses to questions about the gathering of evidence and information.