RENO, Nev. — The World War II-era plane that plummeted into an air-race crowd like a missile on Friday had undergone years of massive overhauls. Pilot Jimmy Leeward had said the changes made the P-51 Mustang faster and more maneuverable, but in the months before the crash even he wasn't certain exactly how it would perform.
"I know it'll do the speed," he said in a podcast uploaded to YouTube in June. "The systems aren't proven yet. We think they're going to be OK."
Investigators don't yet know what caused the plane to pitch sharply into the crowd at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, killing nine people, including Leeward, and injuring dozens. Six people remain in critical condition at hospitals. Officials say 69 people were treated at hospitals, including 46 who have been released.
Investigators have focused on the "elevator trim tab" — a piece of the tail that helps the aircraft maintain lift and appeared to break off before the crash.
In the highly competitive, bravado-filled world of air racing, pilots go for broke on the ground and in the sky, hitting speeds of 500 mph. Leeward is the 20th pilot to die at the air races since they began 47 years ago, but Friday's crash was the first in which spectators were killed.
Leeward had said the plane underwent several years of modifications before Friday's race, including lopping 5 feet off each wing, but he hadn't revealed many of the specifics.
Leeward was rounding a bend at dizzying speeds Friday when his plane took an oddly upward pitch, narrowly missing the packed grandstand. It then twirled just a few hundred feet off the ground and nose-dived into a section of VIP box seats, blasting out a 3-foot-deep, 8-foot-wide crater in a hail of debris.