Lately there’s been an email circulating that purports to be from someone on the Wildfire Air Racing team who had a long talk with race pilot Matt Jackson about Jimmy Leeward’s crash last month at the Reno Air Races. The email says that Jackson was racing at the time in his own Unlimited-category plane and witnessed firsthand the trouble that Jimmy Leeward was having as he rounded the course. According to the email,
There is a video of the entire last lap of the Ghost before the crash which Matt showed me. As Leeward was coming around pylon #8 at about 480 mph after passing Rare Bear, he hit turbulence which pitched his left wing down, Leeward corrected with hard right rudder and aileron. Just as the aircraft was straightening out, he hit a second mountain of turbulence which caused the tail to ‘dig in’ resulting in a 10+ G climb rendering Leeward unconscious instantly and resulted in the tail wheel falling out. (broken tail wheel support structure was found on the course). As the Ghost shot upward the LH aileron trim tab broke loose. This can be heard on the tape, so the trim tab did not cause the accident.
This is conclusion is diametrically opposed to the conclusion that I (and many others) reached, based on the information available—namely, that the failure of the trim tab caused the steep climb, not vice versa. As the email was forwarded to me by a trusted and experienced member of the aircraft community, I was surprised and concerned by its assertions.
I was also a bit skeptical. There are many things in the email which don’t make much sense; turbulence doesn’t come in “mountains,” and I’ve never before heard of any such phenomenon as a tail “digging in.”
I was even more dubious about this:
Matt has had long conversations with the NTSB who call the accident a ‘fluke’. They are not going to recommend canceling future races. He has also talked to the insurance companies covering the races for Reno and they also say they are not going to cancel their coverage of future races. Now we wait for the FAA to make a decision.
The NTSB is highly secretive about their ongoing investigations, which are very serious matters with life-and-death consequences. They are a long way off from reaching a conclusion, and will not issue their report until next year. Only then will the FAA be in a position to change its rules.
Something smelled fishy. So I put a call in to Matt Jackson. Sure enough, Jackson knew exactly what I was talking about and immediately wanted to make clear that he did not write the email. “It’s all BS,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation about what actually happened. It’s not a correct synopsis of what went on.”
For one thing, though he was indeed enrolled in the Unlimited air race along with Jimmy Leeward, he sat out that particular heat due to mechanical difficulties, so he could not have witnessed Leeward’s difficulties from the air.
Jackson says that he tried to track down who wrote the email, so far without success.
“I’d love to know who it is,” he says. “I’m sure that was written either by someone either that has met me or has spoken to me at some point in time, because I meet thousands of people, going to the air race every year, being in the position I’m in. I have to deal with a lot of people that I meet once and might not ever talk to again in my lifetime, and I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s an unfortunate thing. People want to feel important. The power of the internet is that you can make a statement of fact and post it but not have any ramifications because you’re not identified.”
The point he emphasized repeatedly during our conversation was that, above and beyond the specific inaccuracies in the email, it describes him blabbing about an ongoing investigation. “For me to even comment or even voice my opinion about what went on would not be appropriate,” he says. “I don’t endorse or support any comments that have been posted about what I’ve said or haven’t said.”