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Air Race Crash Victims Sue Organizers

LAS VEGAS (CN) - The family of a man who died when a World War II fighter plane slammed into spectators at an airplane race sued the pilot's family, the event organizer, the venue and the man who modified the plane.

Eleven people died, including pilot James Leeward, on Sept. 16, 2011 during the Ultimate Gold Race at the Reno Stead Airport, sponsored by the Reno Air Racing Association.

Leeward's Mustang, The Galloping Ghost, pitched, rolled and hit the Tarmac in front of the grandstands. Seven died at the scene; four died at a hospital.

The family and Estate of Gregory Morcom claims the defendants negligently allowed pilots to fly unsafe planes at dangerous speeds.

The race "is the only race where ... pilots can compete against other racers, flying as low as 50 feet off the ground, close to the crowd and separated by only a few feet, sometimes wing tip to wing tip," the complaint states. "Air shows are dangerous, and hundreds of people, pilots and spectators have been killed at air shows. Air races are even more dangerous."

The aircraft was built in 1947 as a fighter plane, but underwent "major modifications" including shortening the wings, and "substantially increasing the engine power," the complaint states.

"All of these modifications were designed and intended to push the aircraft to speeds beyond those it was designed and built to withstand," the complaint states, adding that the modifications "were a substantial factor in causing the tragedy."

The aircraft had completed several laps and was making its way toward the home pylon when it banked left, then right, turned away from the course and pitched to a steep nose-high altitude. It then dropped in a "nose-low altitude at full power and hit the ground between the first rows of box seats in front of the grandstand seating area," the complaint states. "The explosion created a crater roughly 3 feet deep and 8 feet wide and left a 1-acre debris field."

The family says defendant Richard L. Shanholtzer Jr., a Texan doing business as Frontier Aviation, modified the plane and "turned the Galloping Ghost into an untested, experimental aircraft, which would now fly at speeds well above the original design speed."

The Morcoms also sued the pilot's estate, claiming Leeward should have known that a "trim tab," or gauge used to control and stabilize the aircraft, would fail under high speed.

"The sole trim tab on the tail of the P-51 Mustang failed, placing excess G forces on the pilot as the plane pulled sharply upward, causing the pilot to lose consciousness and control of the aircraft," according to the complaint.

The airplane was purchased from the military in 1946. The plane, which won the 1981 Reno Air Race, was modified several times before being sold to the pilot in 1983, according to the complaint.

"By the time of the tragedy, the wing span had been reduced by a total of 10 feet, the horizontal tail was reduced in span and the ailerons modified," the Morcoms say. "It had only one elevator trim tab. These modifications rendered the aircraft an experimental one where no one, including the pilot, knew what would happen when the aircraft was operated at top speed, which was now at or above 550 miles per hour."

The Morcoms claim the defendant Reno Air Racing Association negligently allowed "experimental, untried and untested aircraft to fly in close proximity to spectators and each other, where they could be and were rocked by wake turbulence with a high risk of loss of control."

The Morcoms add that the pilot was 74, an age at which "pilots lose their ability to withstand G forces."

The family accuses the racing association of failing to properly inspect the racing aircraft, allowing the modifications, and failing to put a speed limit on the race, among other things.

Plaintiffs Margaret Morcom and Ronald William Morcom are the parents of Gregory John Morcom, who died. Fellow plaintiffs Tracy Thurber Morcom was the man's sister-in-law, along and plaintiff Ronald William Morcom Jr. was his brother.

They, along with plaintiffs Eric G. Brown; Dale and Tara Terwedo; Norman, Beth and Greg McDonnell; and Gage Ivanoff were "severely injured as a result of the crash."

Defendant Aero-Trans Corp. is accused of altering the plane's engine and aircraft.

The family seeks medical expenses, funeral and burial expenses, and damages, including for negligence and emotional distress.

They are represented by Matthew Sharp.

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