Veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward dies, dozens hurt in crash at Reno air race

Authorities survey the debris from the plane crash Friday on the tarmac at Stead Airport near Reno, Nev. Emergency crews took 56 people to hospitals, with 15 in critical condition.

Associated Press

Authorities survey the debris from the plane crash Friday on the tarmac at Stead Airport near Reno, Nev. Emergency crews took 56 people to hospitals, with 15 in critical condition.

RENO, Nev. — A vintage World War II-era fighter plane flown by a renowned Hollywood stunt pilot from Ocala plunged into the grandstands Friday during a popular annual air show.

At least three people were killed and more than 50 spectators were injured in the horrific scene strewn with body parts and smoking debris.

The plane spiraled suddenly out of control and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to Stead Airport.

Jimmy Leeward, the pilot of the P-51 Mustang Galloping Ghost, died in the crash, according to Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races. Leeward was 74.

Authorities were investigating the cause, but Houghton said there were indications that mechanical problems were to blame.

Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the show 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 a piece of 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 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.

The P-51 Mustang crashed into a box seat area at the front of the grandstand about 4:30 p.m., race spokesman Mike Draper said.

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."

Another witness, Ronald Sargis, said the pilot seemed to do everything he could to avoid crashing into the crowd. Sargis said the plane "appeared to be just pulverized."

Tanya Breining, of Hayward, Calif., told KTVU-TV in San Francisco: "It was absolute carnage. . . . It looked like more than a bomb exploded."

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

The races 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.

Friday's crash was the worst accident at the event, which has had 16 fatalities in its 48-year history. It was the first time spectators were killed or seriously injured, the Reno Journal-Gazette reported.

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.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement saying 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."

Veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward dies, dozens hurt in crash at Reno air race 09/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 17, 2011 1:07am]

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