Leeward has appeared in several Hollywood films as a stunt pilot. The 74-year-old pilot even developed a gated community with its own airpark, simply so others who shared his passion of piloting and working on planes could live near each other.
Leeward died Friday, Sept. 16 when his P-51 Mustang plane crashed into the VIP section at the National Championship Air Races, held at the Reno Stead Airport. At this time, nine spectators are reported dead, and six remain in critical condition.
While the investigation into the accident is it the early stages, reports seem to be focusing on a part of the plane, named "The Galloping Ghost," which may have fell off just before the plane went out of control. This piece, called an elevator trim tab, which assists the pilot with stabilizing the pitch of the plane.
Much is being made of the other modifications Leeward and his crew made to the plane to turn it into a racing machine, which include taking five inches off of the length of each wing and other modifications that, to the layperson, sounds a lot like taking important things off of a working plane.
There is even an interview posted on YouTube, the June 2011 National Championship Air Races Podcast, where Leeward makes a chilling-in-hindsight statement: "I know the speed. I know it will do the speed. The systems aren't proven yet. We think they're going to be okay."
This quote is getting some press. However, without knowing much about Leeward or his personality, it almost sounds to me like he is teasing his competition with the possibility that the plane won't be ready to race in time. It seems impossible that a racing professional such as Leeward would enter a race in a plane without having thoroughly tested all changes and modifications to his craft. Leeward, of all people, would know the risks of flying at the aircraft's limits without making sure the changes were safe. I certainly hope that the investigation proves that.
You can view the entire podcast here: