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Reno crash killed 9; probe focuses on wayward part

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A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nevada. A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nevada.
A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nevada. The plane plunged into the stands at the event in what an official described as a "mass casualty situation." (AP photo) A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nevada. The plane plunged into the stands at the event in what an official described as a "mass casualty situation." (AP photo)
A P-51 Mustang airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nevada. (AP Photo/Ward Howes) A P-51 Mustang airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno Nevada. (AP Photo/Ward Howes)
(AP Photo/Ward Howes) (AP Photo/Ward Howes)
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  • Reno air race crash scene shows violence of impact

    Reno air race crash scene shows violence of impact

    Sunday, September 18 2011 1:05 PM EDT2011-09-18 17:05:58 GMT
    The scene of a Reno air race crash that killed nine people reveals the violence of the plane's missile-like impact — a crater in the tarmac roughly 3 feet deep and 8 feet across with debris spread out over more 
    The scene of a Reno air race crash that killed nine people reveals the violence of the plane's missile-like impact — a crater in the tarmac roughly 3 feet deep and 8 feet across with debris spread out over more than an acre. 

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The death toll rose to nine Saturday in an air race crash in Reno as investigators determined that several spectators were killed on impact as the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into a crowded tarmac.

Moments earlier, thousands had arched their necks skyward and watched the planes speed by just a few hundred feet off the ground before some noticed a strange gurgling engine noise from above. Seconds later, the P-51 Mustang dubbed the Galloping Ghost pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white VIP box seats.

The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of "Oh my God!" spread through the crowd.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene Saturday to determine what caused Jimmy Leeward to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be a "trim tab," which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.

Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators recreate the crash scene.

"Pictures and video appear to show a piece of the plane was coming off," NTSB spokesman Mark Rosekind said at a news conference. "A component has been recovered. We have not identified the component or if it even came from the airplane ... We are going to focus on that."

The dead so far included the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 54 people were transported to hospitals, but more came in on their own. Eight remained in critical condition as of midday Saturday and nine were in serious condition.

Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.

"This one could have been much worse if the plane had hit a few rows higher up," said Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official. "We could be talking hundreds of deaths."

Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly by avoiding the grandstand section with a last-minute climb, although it's impossible at this point to know his thinking as he was confronted with the disaster and had just seconds to respond.

Witnesses described a horrible scene after the plane struck the crowd and sent up a brown cloud of dust billowing in the wind. When it cleared moments later, motionless bodies lay strewn across the ground, some clumped together, while others stumbled around bloodied and shocked.

"I saw the spinner, the wings, the canopy just coming right at us. It hit directly in front of us, probably 50 to 75 feet," said Ryan Harris, of Round Mountain, Nev. "The next thing I saw was a wall of debris going up in the air. That's what I got splashed with. In the wall of debris I noticed there were pieces of flesh."

Ambulances rushed to the scene, and officials said fans did an amazing job in tending to the injured. Just that morning, the 25 emergency workers at the air show had done a drill for such a large-scale emergency like this.

"We run through what we do in the event of an incident," said Ken Romero, director of the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority. "We walked through how to respond, where the multi-casualty incident bus is and what is on the bus (by way of equipment), how to set up the treatment zones and how to triage."

The crash marked the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno. Twenty pilots including Leeward have died in that time, race officials said.

It is the only air race of its kind in the United States. lanes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the ground at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

The disaster prompted renewed calls for race organizers to consider ending the event because of the dangers. Officials said they would look at everything as they work to understand what happened.

Another crash, on Saturday, came at an airshow in Martinsburg, W. Va., when another World War II-era plane, a T-28, crashed and burst into flames. The pilot's condition was not released.

In Reno, the Mustang that disintegrated into the crowd had minor crashes almost exactly 40 years ago after its engine failed. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed during an air race and it crash landed short of the runway.

P-51 historian Dick Phillips of Burnsville, Minn., said Saturday the plane had had several new engines since then as well as a new canopy and other modifications.

Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including "Amelia" and "The Tuskegee Airmen."

In an interview with the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner last year, he described how he has flown 250 types of planes and has a particular fondness for the P-51, which came into WWII relatively late and was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among the famous pilots of the hot new fighter was double ace Chuck Yeager.

The National Championship Air Races draw thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race. Local schools often hold field trips there, and a local sports book took wagers on the outcomes.

The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots' practice runs and briefs pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.

John Townes, a Reno pilot, said the plane didn't sound right moments before the crash.

"It wasn't quite vertical. It was at a very slight angle and because of that I think it probably saved a lot of people," he said. "Normally when you see an air crash, you see recognizable wreckage. There was nothing, just little bits of metal."

___

Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Joshua Freed in Minneapolis; Haven Daley, Scott Sonner and Martin Griffith in Reno; Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; and Michelle Rindels, Cristina Silva and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas.

___

Online:

http://bit.ly/mVL0PW

https://www.facebook.com/JimmyLeeward

http://www2.leewardairranch.com/

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

THIS IS AN UPDATE TO THE PREVIOUS STORY BELOW.

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Federal investigators on Saturday began looking into what caused a 74-year-old pilot to lose control of his World War II-era plane and crash next to a VIP section at a Reno air race in an accident that killed at least three people and sent dozens to the hospital.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams told The Associated Press Saturday that a team has arrived from Washington to join regional officials. He said it's too early to say what caused the crash.

As thousands watched in horror, the plane competing in a Nevada event described as a car race in the sky suddenly pitched upward, rolled and did a nose-dive toward the crowded grandstand.

The P-51 Mustang, flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, then slammed into the tarmac in front of VIP box seats and blew to pieces in front the pilot's family and a tight-knit group of friends who attend the annual event in Reno.

"It came down directly at us. As I looked down, I saw the spinner, the wings, the canopy just coming right at us. It hit directly in front of us, probably 50 to 75 feet," Ryan Harris, of Round Mountain, Nev., told the AP.

"The next thing I saw was a wall of debris going up in the air. That's what I got splashed with. In the wall of debris noticed there were pieces of flesh."

The pilot and two spectators were killed and more than 50 were injured amid a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.

Authorities said it appears a mechanical failure with the P-51 Mustang — a class of fighter plane that can fly in excess of 500 mph — was to blame. Some credit the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, with preventing the crash from being far more deadly.

"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section," said Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, who watched the race with his two daughters.

Left in its wake were bloodied bodies spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene. Video of the aftermath shows a man with his leg severed at the knee.

Video and photos of the crash were captured by several people in the stands, and the horrific images of the wreckage were transmitted around the world within minutes.

John Townes, a Reno pilot, said the plane didn't sound right.

"It wasn't quite vertical. It was at a very slight angle and because of that I think it probably saved a lot of people," he said.

"Normally when you see an air crash, you see recognizable wreckage. There was nothing, just little bits of metal."

Prior to Friday, 17 people had been killed at the National Championship Air Races since their start 1964, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

Two involved P-51s, the newspaper reported. In 1999, a P-51 disintegrated during a race, scattering debris and damaging a house. In 1994, one of the vintage craft crashed next to the east-west runway after engine failure sprayed the windshield with oil.

Organizers softened two of the curves pilots negotiate after crashes into nearby neighborhoods in 1998 and 1999. In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting local school officials to consider barring student field trips to the event.

Friday's crash was the first time spectators were killed or seriously injured, the Gazette-Journal reported.

Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races, said at a news conference hours after the crash that there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control." He did not elaborate.

He said the rest of the races, which bring in tens of millions of dollars for the local economy, have been canceled as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.

"The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac," said Johnny Norman, who was at the show.

Tim O'Brien of Grass Valley, Calif., who is chairman of an air show in his hometown in California, was photographing Friday's races when the crash occurred.

He said the P-51 Mustang was racing six other planes, and was in the process of moving from third place into second when it pitched violently upward, rolled and then headed straight down.

From the photos he took, O'Brien said it looked like a piece of the plane's tail called a "trim tab" had fallen off. He believes that's what caused the plane's sudden climb.

When the aircraft hit the ground, there was a "big explosion but no fire," O'Brien said.

"The propeller (was) spinning very fast, and there was a lot of mass coming down all at once," he said. It was a "very violent impact."

Afterward, a number of people were standing around, and "all we could do was hug each other," he said.

Maureen Higgins, of Alabama, who has been coming to the air races for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control.

"Obviously he had no control. He was wobbling. He went upside down and then he headed straight for us, straight at the grandstand."

She was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after debris hit him in the head.

"I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn't believe it. I'm talking an arm, a leg," Higgins said "The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore."

Renown Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed that two others besides the pilot died, but did not provide their identities.

Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told The Associated Press that emergency crews took a total of 56 injury victims to three hospitals. She said they also observed a number of people being transported by private vehicle, and those people were not included in the count.

Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 were considered in critical condition, 13 were serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious or non-life threatening.

"This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades," Kruse told The Associated Press. "The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it."

Gov. Brian Sandoval noted at a news conference that area hospitals were in need of blood in the wake of the crash, and he encouraged people to donate.

Among the dead was Leeward, of Ocala, Fla., a veteran airman and movie stunt pilot who named his P-51 Mustang fighter plane the "Galloping Ghost," according to Houghton said.

Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including "Amelia" and "Cloud Dancer."

In an interview with the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner last year, he described how he has flown 250 types of planes and has a particular fondness for the P-51, which came into the war relatively late and was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among the famous pilots of the hot new fighter was WWII double ace Chuck Yeager.

"They're more fun. More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed and more speed," Leeward said.

Leeward talked about racing strategy in an interview Thursday with LiveAirShow TV while standing in front of his plane.

"Right now I think we've calculated out, we're as fast as anybody in the field, or maybe even a little faster," he said. "But uh, to start with, we didn't really want to show our hand until about Saturday or Sunday. We've been playing poker since last Monday. And uh so, it's ready, we're ready to show a couple more cards, so we'll see on Friday what happens, and on Saturday we'll probably go ahead and play our third ace, and on Sunday we'll do our fourth ace."

Houghton described Leeward as a good friend.

"Everybody knows him. It's a tight-knit family. He's been here for a long, long time," Houghton said.

He also said Leeward was a "very qualified, very experienced pilot" who was in good medical condition. He suggested Leeward would have made every effort to avoid casualties on the ground if he knew he was going to crash.

"If it was in Jimmy's power, he would have done everything he possibly could," Houghton said.

The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race.

The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots' practice runs and briefs pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.

Mike French, a private pilot, was his way to the races late Friday when he learned they were canceled after the crash.

"It's unfortunate, tragic in so many ways," said French, 41, of Wellington, Colo.

It would have been his fifth trip and the first for his 8-year-old son, Myles. "He really wanted to go," the dad said.

French said he had the "Galloping Ghost" P-51 image as his computer screensaver.

"It's the weirdest thing," he said. "I just liked the looks of the aircraft."

___

Associated Press writers Ken Ritter in Reno and Cristina Silva and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

THIS IS AN UPDATE TO THE PREVIOUS STORY BELOW.

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- As thousands watched in horror, a World War II-era fighter plane competing in a Nevada event described as a car race in the sky suddenly pitched upward, rolled and did a nose-dive toward the crowded grandstand.

The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, then slammed into the tarmac in front of VIP box seats and blew to pieces in front the pilot's family and a tight-knit group of friends who attend the annual event in Reno.

"It absolutely disintegrated," said Tim O'Brien of Grass Valley, Calif., who attends the races every year. "I've never seen anything like that before."

The pilot and two spectators were killed and more than 50 were injured amid a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.

Authorities said it appears a mechanical failure with the P-51 Mustang - a class of fighter plane that can fly in excess of 500 mph - was to blame. Some credit the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, with preventing the crash from being far more deadly.

"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section," said Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, who watched the race with his two daughters.

Left in its wake were bloodied bodies spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene. Video of the aftermath shows a man with his leg severed at the knee.

Video and photos of the crash were captured by several people in the stands, and the horrific images of the wreckage were transmitted around the world within minutes.

Prior to Friday, 17 people had been killed at the National Championship Air Races since their start 1964, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

Two involved P-51s, the newspaper reported. In 1999, a P-51 disintegrated during a race, scattering debris and damaging a house. In 1994, one of the vintage craft crashed next to the east-west runway after engine failure sprayed the windshield with oil.

Organizers softened two of the curves pilots negotiate after crashes into nearby neighborhoods in 1998 and 1999. In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting local school officials to consider barring student field trips to the event.

Friday's crash was the first time spectators were killed or seriously injured, the Gazette-Journal reported.

Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races, said at a news conference hours after the crash that there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control." He did not elaborate.

He said the rest of the races, which bring in tens of millions of dollars for the local economy, have been canceled as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.

"The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac," said Johnny Norman, who was at the show.

O'Brien, who is chairman of an air show in his hometown in California, was photographing Friday's races when the crash occurred.

He said the P-51 Mustang was racing six other planes, and was in the process of moving from third place into second when it pitched violently upward, rolled and then headed straight down.

From the photos he took, O'Brien said it looked like a piece of the plane's tail called a "trim tab" had fallen off. He believes that's what caused the plane's sudden climb.

When the aircraft hit the ground, there was a "big explosion but no fire," O'Brien said.

"The propeller (was) spinning very fast, and there was a lot of mass coming down all at once," he said. It was a "very violent impact."

Afterward, a number of people were standing around, and "all we could do was hug each other," he said.

Maureen Higgins, of Alabama, who has been coming to the air races for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control.

"Obviously he had no control. He was wobbling. He went upside down and then he headed straight for us, straight at the grandstand."

She was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after debris hit him in the head.

"I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn't believe it. I'm talking an arm, a leg," Higgins said "The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore."

Renown Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed that two others besides the pilot died, but did not provide their identities.

Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told The Associated Press that emergency crews took a total of 56 injury victims to three hospitals. She said they also observed a number of people being transported by private vehicle, and those people were not included in the count.

Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 were considered in critical condition, 13 were serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious or non-life threatening.

"This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades," Kruse told The Associated Press. "The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it."

Gov. Brian Sandoval noted at a news conference that area hospitals were in need of blood in the wake of the crash, and he encouraged people to donate.

Among the dead was Leeward, of Ocala, Fla., a veteran airman and movie stunt pilot who named his P-51 Mustang fighter plane the "Galloping Ghost," according to Houghton said.

Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including "Amelia" and "Cloud Dancer."

In an interview with the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner last year, he described how he has flown 250 types of planes and has a particular fondness for the P-51, which came into the war relatively late and was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among the famous pilots of the hot new fighter was WWII double ace Chuck Yeager.

"They're more fun. More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed and more speed," Leeward said.

Leeward talked about racing strategy in an interview Thursday with LiveAirShow TV while standing in front of his plane.

"Right now I think we've calculated out, we're as fast as anybody in the field, or maybe even a little faster," he said. "But uh, to start with, we didn't really want to show our hand until about Saturday or Sunday. We've been playing poker since last Monday. And uh so, it's ready, we're ready to show a couple more cards, so we'll see on Friday what happens, and on Saturday we'll probably go ahead and play our third ace, and on Sunday we'll do our fourth ace."

Houghton described Leeward as a good friend.

"Everybody knows him. It's a tight-knit family. He's been here for a long, long time," Houghton said.

He also said Leeward was a "very qualified, very experienced pilot" who was in good medical condition. He suggested Leeward would have made every effort to avoid casualties on the ground if he knew he was going to crash.

"If it was in Jimmy's power, he would have done everything he possibly could," Houghton said.

The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race.

The FAA and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots' practice runs and briefs pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.

Mike French, a private pilot, was his way to the races late Friday when he learned they were canceled after the crash.

"It's unfortunate, tragic in so many ways," said French, 41, of Wellington, Colo.

It would have been his fifth trip and the first for his 8-year-old son, Myles. "He really wanted to go," the dad said.

French said he had the "Galloping Ghost" P-51 image as his computer screensaver.

"It's the weirdest thing," he said. "I just liked the looks of the aircraft."

---

Associated Press writers Ken Ritter in Reno and Cristina Silva and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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