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Fiery crash at Thunder Over Solano air show in Calif. kills veteran stunt pilot

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A 77-year-old aerobatic pilot was killed when his highly modified 1944 PR13D Super Stearman biplane, tail number N68828, crashed into a field at Travis Air Force Base about 3 miles east of Fairfield, Calif. on Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 2:05 p.m. PDT, as reported on that date by the San Francisco Chronicle, Aviation Safety Network, Fox News, and other media sources.

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The vintage plane, flown by Eddie Andreini of Half Moon Bay, Calif., appeared to drift closer to the ground until it finally made impact. Turbulence and wind gusts may have contributed to the accident, as well as some mechanical issue.

The biplane was inverted, and flying a frequently performed, crowd pleasing Stearman ribbon cutting maneuver some 50 feet above the tarmac during the Thunder Over Solano air show, an annual event at the Air Force base. The shocked audience of about 80,000 saw the blue and silver WW-II era military training plane fly directly into the ground and become gradually consumed by a post-impact blaze. The devastating crash occurred on the second day of the air show, causing other scheduled events to be cancelled.

This was the second air show fatal accident during 2014. The other incident also involved an inverted low pass in which the aircraft, a Zivko Edge 540, flown by Hungarian aerobatics pilot Tamás Nádas, also plummeted straight towards the ground on March 7 at the Qatar Mile event held at the Al Khor Airport in Qatar. The Flight Safety Network database lists a total of 806 accidents involving the Super Stearman biplane from Nov. 24, 1937 to May 4, 2014.

According to Weather Underground, maximum temperature on Sunday in Fairfield, Calif. was 72°F, average humidity was 76%, barometric pressure was 30.00 inches, and wind speed was 23 mph from WSW with maximum gusts to 29 mph.

Andreini had over 60 years of flying experience and was often seen featured at air shows including the prestigious Reno Air Races. His first solo air show performance was in 1964. He was a highly skilled, respected, and admired pilot.

He took great pride in the maneuverability and high performance of his specially modified Stearman, powered by a Pratt and Whitney R-985 engine that produced 450 horsepower, instead of the 220 hp stock Continental R-670-5 seven-cylinder air-cooled radial engine. Other modifications included a custom engine cowling, special propellers, additional strut wires, an inverted fuel and oil system to accommodate stunt routines, and changes to the aircraft's undercarriage. A 15-minute performance consumed 20 gallons of 100-octane aviation fuel.

As Andreini promised on his personal website, "His routine is fast-paced, light, and crowd pleasing. He runs a close show, lots of maneuvers that descend tantalizingly close to the ground, remaining very visible to even the most restricted crowds."

The Stearman Model 75 biplane was used as a military trainer, with at least 8,584 aircraft built in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. Stearman Aircraft became a subsidiary of Boeing in 1934. Widely known as the Stearman, Boeing Stearman or Kaydet, it served as a primary trainer for the USAAF, the USN, and with the RCAF as the Kaydet throughout World War II. After the war, thousands of surplus aircraft were sold on the civilian market, becoming popular as crop dusters, sports planes, and for aerobatic and wing walking use in air shows.

Standard versions of the Boeing-Stearman Model 75 have a maximum speed of 135 mph, a cruising speed of 96 mph, a service ceiling of 13,200 feet, and take just over 17 minutes to reach 10,000 feet altitude.

The National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating all aspects of this fatal crash, including maintenance records and eyewitness accounts, videos and other images taken by spectators.

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