Ward Howes / AP
Published Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 | 4:49 p.m.
Updated Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 | 9:44 p.m.
Beyond the Sun
RENO — A World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot plunged Friday into the edge of the grandstands during a popular air race, killing three people, injuring more than 50 spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.
The plane, piloted by 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, spiraled out of control without warning and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene.
Authorities were investigating the cause, but an official with the event said there were indications that mechanical problems were to blame.
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.
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."
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 Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races. Officials earlier said Leeward was 80.
Renown Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed that two others 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, which they are not including in their 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."
The P-51 Mustang, a class of fighter plane that can fly at speeds in excess of 500 mph, crashed into a box-seat area in front of the grandstand at about 4:30 p.m., race spokesman Mike Draper said. Houghton said Leeward appeared to have "lost control of the aircraft," though details on why that happened weren't immediately known.
Houghton 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 have been canceled as the NTSB investigates.
KRNV-TV weatherman Jeff Martinez, who was just outside the air race grounds at the time, said the plane veered to the right and then "it just augered straight into the ground."
"You saw pieces and parts going everywhere," he said. "Everyone is in disbelief."
Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, said the pilot appeared to lose partial control off the plane when he veered off course and flew over the bleachers where Linville was sitting with his two daughters.
"I told the girls to run and the pilot pulled the plane straight up, but he couldn't do anything else with it," Linville told the AP. "That's when it nosedived right into the box seats."
Linville said after the plane went straight up, it barrel rolled and inverted downward, crashing into an area where at least 20 people were sitting.
"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section," and hurt thousands of people, Linville said.
Linville said the plane smashed into the ground and shattered like an enormous water balloon, sending shrapnel and debris into the crowd.
"It was just flying everywhere," he 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 described Leeward as a "very qualified, very experienced pilot" and that he was in good medical condition. He also 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 year in September to watch various military and civilian planes race. They also have attracted scrutiny in the past over safety concerns, including four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008. It was such a concern that local school officials once considered whether they should not allow student field trips at the event.
The competition is like a car race in the sky, with planes flying 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.
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 brief pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.
Nevada politicians promptly sent statements expressing sadness over the tragedy.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was "deeply saddened" about the crash.
"My thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives and with those who were wounded in this horrific tragedy," he said. "I am so grateful to our first responders for their swift action and will continue to monitor this situation as it develops."
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said, "My thoughts and prayers are with the injured and the families of those who lost their lives in this heartbreaking tragedy in Reno. I commend all those on the scene who rushed to provide aid and thank our emergency and medical personnel who are now caring for the wounded."
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and families of this horrific accident. I have directed my staff to provide whatever assistance they can."
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said he was “shocked and saddened by the news of the tragic plane crash at the Reno National Championship Air Races this afternoon, and my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. I have been in regular contact and receiving updates from City of Reno officials. I will be in Reno tomorrow and hope to meet with emergency response personnel for a briefing and to offer any assistance I can provide."
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said, "My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the victims of this terrible accident."
Associated Press writers Cristina Silva and Oskar Garcia contributed to this report.