A Visit to the University of Michigan

By:  Earl Weener

This month, I’ve been asked to speak to the University of Michigan’s Aerospace Engineering Department as a guest lecturer at one of their seminars. I have to say, this is a distinguished honor for me as an aerospace engineer and more importantly as an alumnus. Not only does this event give me an opportunity to visit the beautiful Ann Arbor campus in the fall, but also a chance to discuss the NTSB’s investigation into the crash of “The Galloping Ghost,” a highly modified P-51 in the unlimited class of the annual Reno Air races, with aspiring aerospace engineering professionals.

This accident, which occurred on Sept. 16 at the 2011 Reno Air Races in Nevada, certainly presented a number of investigative challenges in terms of identifying the probable cause of the accident. It also involved a variety of aerospace engineering subjects of interest. As a result of this accident, the NTSB issued a number of safety recommendations – and in advance of the completion of the investigation. Of primary note, for the benefit of the aerospace engineering community, were recommendations concerning the need to conduct an engineering evaluation, including flight demonstrations and analysis within the flight envelope, for any aircraft that has undergone a major modification, such as to its structure or flight controls.

These recommendations were issued specifically to the air racing organizations involved with the Reno Air Races. However, the topic of the recommendations, along with other aerospace topics highlighted in this investigation are worth sharing with the broader aerospace community, and what better place to start and drive the point home than with aerospace engineering students.

Bottom line: Any major modification to an aircraft is likely to affect its integrity, flight characteristics, and performance; unintended consequences from such modifications can be avoided, if they are properly undertaken and evaluated. GO BLUE!


Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

Member Weener is a licensed pilot who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.

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