2 air show crashes, 2 very different outcomes

Posted Sept. 18, 2011, at 8:57 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 19, 2011, at 11:54 a.m.

RENO, Nev. — Two crashes at two air shows in two days, one that killed spectators, the other just the pilot far from fans. But there was another big difference — fire.

Nine people died and dozens more were injured when Jimmy Leeward’s World War II-era P-51 Mustang slammed into a VIP box seat section at Friday’s National Championship Air Races in Reno. The plane disintegrated into a cloud of dust and debris. Some of the injured described being coated in aviation fuel that burned their skin, but there were no flames, no fireball.

The next day at an air show across the country in West Virginia, a post-WWII plane flown by decorated Air Force pilot and instructor John “Jack” Mangan crashed and burst into flames before hundreds of stunned spectators. The pilot died but no fans were injured.

As investigators in both crashes worked to determine causes, pilots and experts were perplexed by the lack of explosion in Reno. It could have meant many more injured and killed.

“We are in the early stage of this investigation and will be looking at this as part of our investigation,” National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams said Sunday.

Pilot Ray Sherwood of Placerville, Calif., who was at the Reno race, said it’s been a hot topic of discussion.

“Everybody is talking about how surprised they are that it didn’t go fireball,” he said. “It’s the big question, the big mystery … no one knows why it didn’t fireball.”

Ken Liano, a structural engineer and aircraft consultant, also was surprised the plane didn’t explode. He said it’s possible the sheer velocity of the plane’s impact extinguished any sparks that may have ignited the fuel. But everyone is just guessing.

“Maybe it did get basically blown out. Who really knows at the end of the day, but sure, that’s possible,” Liano said. “I guess God was on the people’s side because it would have been a lot worse.”

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Brian Skoloff reported from Salt Lake City.

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