LAS VEGAS — Federal investigators, in their first official report on the deadly Reno air races crash, said Friday that photos and witness accounts indicate that a tail piece on the souped-up P-51 Mustang broke off around the time the aircraft pitched violently skyward.
The crash at the Reno-Stead Airport killed the pilot and 10 spectators and injured 74 others, most of them seriously, the National Transportation Safety Board said in the report. On Friday, 11 people remained hospitalized, two in critical condition.
The NTSB's brief summary of evidence, which draws no conclusions as to the crash's cause, is a prelude to what the agency has said will be a wide-ranging, monthslong investigation. Before the Sept. 16 disaster, 19 pilots had been killed during the air races, a popular event in which modified planes blast around a course marked by pylons. No spectators had died.
Flown by veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, the Galloping Ghost had completed several laps during the day's last event when it made a steep left turn toward the home pylon. Then, the report said, the plane banked left, banked right, turned away from the course and shot into the sky.
"Witnesses reported and photographic evidence indicates that a piece of the airframe separated during these maneuvers," the report said.
Aviation experts have said photos of the disabled plane appear to show that the "trim tab," a critical component of the aircraft's tail, had snapped off. That might have sent the plane skyward, producing huge gravitational forces that could have knocked Leeward out, they said.
In 1998, another Mustang pilot survived a similar trim tab failure during a Reno race. The pilot blacked out but regained consciousness in time to land the plane safely.