RENO, Nev. (CBS13) – On the final lap of a six-lap race at the National Championship Air Races, a vintage P-51 Mustang named the “Galloping Ghost” nosed into the air and rolled over.
Flying low to the ground, the 74-year-old experienced air racer and stunt pilot had little time to recover.
The airplane slammed into the ground near a crowd of seated audience members on a runway of the Reno-Stead Airport at about 4:20 p.m., disintegrating instantly in the violent crash. Numerous victims were thrown into the air as bystanders screamed and ducked away from flying debris.
Video of the moments after the crash showed a wreckage field dozens of yards wide. Dozens of victims lay injured while others were torn apart, body parts strewn across the area.
Cameron Park resident Mike Kremper told CBS13 minutes after the accident that “a lot of people were hurt today.”
“This is really a national tragedy,” he said.
Another eyewitness, Gary Clough of Valley Springs, said emergency crews quickly responded and ordered the injured to move away from the area.
“There were a lot of people crying, people hugging each other, making sure they were OK,” Clough said. “Some people were walking out with blood on them.”
The cause of the crash wasn’t immediately known, and the number of the deceased has not yet been tallied. Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races, said a total of 56 injury victims were transported to the hospital by authorities and a number of others were transported by private vehicle.
At least three deaths have been confirmed. The pilot, veteran airman Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Florida, is among them.
Of the injured, 15 were transported to local hospitals in critical condition, 13 were in serious condition with life-threatening injuries and 28 more suffered non-life threatening wounds. The identities of the victims have not been released.
Leeward’s website, which was taken offline a couple hours after the crash, said the pilot had flown in more than 120 air races and worked as a stunt pilot in movies like “Amelia.”
In an interview with LiveAirShowTV, Leeward said he was excited to test out new modifications to his P-51 and said he planned to use Friday’s event to gauge his strategy for the rest of the races over the weekend.
“I think we’ve calculated out, we’re as fast as anybody in the field, or maybe even a little faster,” he said.
In a press conference Friday evening, Houghton said Leeward was “a good friend,” who almost certainly took every possible action to avoid casualties to the crowd.
“If it was in Jimmy’s power, he would have done everything he possibly could,” Houghton said.
Some witnesses said the plane tried to pull away from the crowd in its final moments and narrowly missed slamming into the bleachers, where thousands of people were sitting.
The remaining events at the National Championship Air Races have been cancelled, officials announced.
Multiple Federal Aviation Administration inspectors were observing the races at the time of the incident and are assisting the National Transportation Safety Board in their investigation of the circumstances leading up to the tragedy.
According to a 2008 USA Today article, 19 people have died at the event since it began in 1964, include three fatal crashes in 2007.
Anyone with concerns for friends or family members can call (775) 972-6663.