Wrongful death lawsuit filed in Texas over Reno airshow crash

Michelle Keahey, East Texas Bureau Dec. 7, 2011, 5:35am

This photo from The Associated Press shows debris from the crash of a stunt plane into the spectator's seating area at an air show in Reno, Nev.

SHERMAN - The wife of a man killed in a deadly crash at a September airshow in Reno, Nev., has filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the stunt pilot and the Texas company that modified the plane.

Calling the crash a "predictable result of a reckless drive for speed by a risk-taking pilot and crew, coupled with an insatiable drive for profit by those who stood to profit from the show," Sezen Altug, individually, as administrator of the Estate of Craig W. Salerno, and as next friend of minors John Doe and Jane Doe, filed the lawsuit on Oct. 31.

Richard L. Shanholtzer Jr., doing business as Frontier Aviation; Reno Air Racing Association Inc. doing business as National Championship Air Races; James K. Leeward, individually and doing business as Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team; Leeward Racing Inc.; Aeroacoustics Inc.; and Aero-Trans Corp. are named as defendants.

The suit was first filed in Collin County District Court, but the defendants removed the case to the Eastern District of Texas, Sherman Division on Dec. 2.

The deadly incident occurred on Sept. 16 at the National Championship Air Races in Reno when a P-51D Mustang crashed into the crowd and killed 11 people. The airplane was flown by defendant James K. Leeward, a 74-year-old stunt pilot.

At the time of the crash, Leeward's plane was in fourth place and was rounding the last pylon when the plane pitched up, rolled upside down and then pitched down. The airplane crashed into the box section of the seats and exploded in front of the grandstands.

Craig Salerno, husband to Sezen Altug and father of two young children, was sitting in the box sitting area and was killed instantly.

According to the lawsuit, the former military plane had undergone major modifications.

The plaintiff argues that the P-51D airplane was never designed to operate at speeds approaching 550 mph. Defendant Richard Shanholtzer, an expert in aircraft modifications, changed the aerodynamics of the aircraft, such as shortening the wingspan over 10 feet from the plane's original design, the suit states.

According to the lawsuit, the mechanics at the Reno air show reported that pilot's team was having trouble with the electronically controlled trim-tab, a part of the plane used to counteract aero-dynamic forces and stabilize the aircraft without the need for the pilot to constantly apply a control force.

The lawsuit states that the plane lost the trim-tab, causing it to abruptly pitch up and as a result, Leeward overcorrected due to the low altitude. The pilot lost consciousness and complete control of the plane.

Defendant Reno Air Racing Association is accused of negligence for failing to warn spectators of the risks associated with the air race.

Defendant Shanholtzer and the other defendants are accused of negligence for failing to test the plane's modifications, failing to examine the parameters of the expected flight, failing to warn spectators that the plane was having issues and failing to warn spectators of the inherent risks with the race itself and spectator positioning.

The plaintiffs are asking for an award of damages not to exceed $25 million in compensatory and punitive damages for loss of consortium, loss of society, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering, mental anguish, interest and court costs.

Anthony G. Buzbee of The Buzbee Law Firm in Houston is representing the plaintiffs.

Case No. 4:11-cv-00796

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