RENO, Nev. (AP) — The death toll rose to nine Saturday in an air race crash in Reno as investigators determined that several spectators were killed on impact as the 1940s-model plane appeared to lose a piece of its tail before slamming like a missile into a crowded tarmac.

Moments earlier, thousands had arched their necks skyward and watched the planes speed by just a few hundred feet off the ground before some noticed a strange gurgling engine noise from above. Seconds later, the P-51 Mustang dubbed The Galloping Ghost pitched oddly upward, twirled and took an immediate nosedive into a section of white VIP box seats.

The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran racer and Hollywood stunt pilot, disintegrated in a ball of dust, debris and bodies as screams of “Oh my God!” spread through the crowd.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the scene Saturday to determine what caused Jimmy Leeward to lose control of the plane, and they were looking at amateur video clips that appeared to show a small piece of the aircraft falling to the ground before the crash. Witnesses who looked at photos of the part said it appeared to be an “elevator trim tab,” which helps pilots keep control of the aircraft.

Reno police also provided a GPS mapping system to help investigators recreate the crash scene.

“Pictures and video appear to show a piece of the plane was coming off,” NTSB spokesman Mark Rosekind said at a news conference. “A component has been recovered. We have not identified the component or if it even came from the airplane … We are going to focus on that.”

Investigators said they also recovered part of the tail section, where the tab is located.

A tour near the site offered to journalists Saturday evening revealed debris spread in a fan-shape over more than an acre around a crater roughly 3 feet deep and as much as 8 feet across. Based on the crater’s location, it appears the P-51 Mustang went straight down in the first few rows of VIP box seats, or about 65 feet in front of the leading edge of the grandstand.

Yellow crime tape surrounded the scene and spectator seats remained askew.

Among the dead were the pilot and eight spectators. Officials said 69 people were treated at hospitals, including 36 who have been released and 31 who remain there. Nine were in critical condition late Saturday.

Doctors who treated the injured said it was among the most severe situations they had ever seen because of the large number of people, including at least two children younger than 18 who are not among those in critical condition.

Injuries included major head injuries, facial trauma and limb injuries, including amputations, said Dr. Myron Gomes, chief trauma surgeon at Renown Regional Medical Center.

“I’ve seen more patients, but never this many patients with this number of severe injuries,” added Dr. Michael Morkin, chief of Renown’s emergency department, who trained at Cook County General Hospital In Chicago.

“It was traumatic,” he said.

Despite the large number of dead and injured, witnesses and people familiar with the race say the toll could have been much worse had the plane gone down in the larger crowd area of the stands. The plane crashed in a section of box seats that was located in front of the grandstand area where most people sat.

“This one could have been much worse if the plane had hit a few rows higher up,” said Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official. “We could be talking hundreds of deaths.”

Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly by avoiding the grandstand section with a last-minute climb, although it’s impossible at this point to know his thinking as he was confronted with the disaster and had just seconds to respond.

One of the things investigators said they’ll be looking at is the health of Leeward, the 74-year-old pilot, who friends say was in excellent health.

Witnesses described a horrible scene after the plane struck the crowd and sent up a brown cloud of dust billowing in the wind. When it cleared moments later, motionless bodies lay strewn across the ground, some clumped together, while others stumbled around bloodied and shocked.

“I saw the spinner, the wings, the canopy just coming right at us. It hit directly in front of us, probably 50 to 75 feet,” said Ryan Harris, of Round Mountain, Nev. “The next thing I saw was a wall of debris going up in the air. That’s what I got splashed with. In the wall of debris I noticed there were pieces of flesh.”

Ambulances rushed to the scene, and officials said fans did an amazing job in tending to the injured. Just that morning, the 25 emergency workers at the air show had done a drill for such a large-scale emergency like this.

“We run through what we do in the event of an incident,” said Ken Romero, director of the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority. “We walked through how to respond, where the multi-casualty incident bus is and what is on the bus (by way of equipment), how to set up the treatment zones and how to triage.”

The crash marked the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno. Twenty pilots including Leeward have died in that time, race officials said.

It is the only air race of its kind in the United States. Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the ground at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

The disaster prompted renewed calls for race organizers to consider ending the event because of the dangers. Officials said they would look at everything as they work to understand what happened.

Another crash, on Saturday, came at an airshow in Martinsburg, W. Va., when post-World War II plane, a T-28, crashed and burst into flames. The pilot was killed.

In Reno, the Mustang that disintegrated into the crowd had minor crashes almost exactly 40 years ago after its engine failed. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed during an air race and it crash landed short of the runway.

P-51 historian Dick Phillips of Burnsville, Minn., said Saturday the plane had had several new engines since then as well as a new canopy and other modifications.

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 “The Tuskegee Airmen.”

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 WWII relatively late and was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among the famous pilots of the hot new fighter was double ace Chuck Yeager.

The National Championship Air Races draw thousands of people to Reno every September to watch various military and civilian planes race. Local schools often hold field trips there, and a local sports book took wagers on the outcomes.

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 briefs pilots on the route maneuvers and emergency procedures.

John Townes, a Reno pilot, said the plane didn’t sound right moments before the crash.

“It wasn’t quite vertical. It was at a very slight angle and because of that I think it probably saved a lot of people,” he said. “Normally when you see an air crash, you see recognizable wreckage. There was nothing, just little bits of metal.”

Comments (16)
  1. Paul Kepler says:

    Due to the lack of fireball in this case I would be questioning the ground crew of Galloping Ghost as to where the fuel was. Look at the T-28 that crashed in W. Va., that is what a plane with fuel on board does in a major crash. That P-51 was empty The pilot probably ran out of fuel, called Mayday and climbed to keep from being a hazard to the other racers and to gain altitude to set up for an emergency landing. Being in his 70s a G induced stroke could have been suffered as a result of the zoom climb killing the pilot and from there gravity took over . Still tragic but I would be looking at the fuel situation.

    1. tmooo says:

      Hi Paul,
      I know nothing about planes, but your theory sounds interesting & possible. But what about the piece from the tail of the plane that people said they saw come off? And, is there any way to determine if the pilot did a zoom climb on purpose? Any way to determine if he had a stroke from it? (I’m ignorant about all this but curious.) What you say raises questions & would apply to future air shows. Thanks. I’m so sorry for all the individuals involved.

      1. DrewD says:

        I was there! I watched the entire thing. I have been going there since age 12. In case of a problem, pilots give the “MAYDAY” radio call, provided they are able to, and at the same time, pull up very steeply to get altitude, which also is a trade off for the speed they are carrying. Leeward(the pilot) made a “mayday” call as he pulled up, but in some pics and vids i’ve already seen posted, you can clearly see a broken piece on the P-51 tail. When he pulled up to about 1,000ft, that plane rolled very violently to the right and into a right hand loop, pointing straight down at the grandstands. With the engine still going wide open, and i’am thinking he was pulling enough G’s that he couldn’t have pulled back the throttle anyway. In his final moments, it looks to me like he gave it all he could to pull up away from people that he could see right below him.
        I can’t begin to tell you the sound it made when it hit. I honestly think he did what he could with whatever control he had left, and I also would bet bailing out wasn’t an option as long as that aircraft was heading for a populated area, not to mention the G’s from that very tight loop, speed and lack of altitude.

    2. Dave Davis says:

      Seventy four year old men make lousy drivers so why would a 74 year old pilot faire any better?

  2. Paul Kepler says:

    The part that is missing from the elevator is a trim tab. This is a control surface that causes control forces to be neutral while having the main control surface, in this case the elevator (nose up/ down), still apply needed control input to the aircraft. The lack of this part would make control forces( the effort required of the pilot) to be heavier than normal. Standard procedure in ANY in flight emergency is referred to as the three C’s (Climb, Confess, and Communicate) In the case of the Reno races a zoom climb in an emergency is crucial as the guys behind you are at or near 500 MPH and blending aircraft at any speed is to be avoided. Climbing serves two purposes in this situation : 1 Get the hell out of the way of very fast traffic and, 2 the higher you are in the sky the more time you have to find a place to land or get out and have altitude for the chute to do its job. Race planes do their thing VERY close to the ground so the climb has to be done as quickly as possible.

  3. The Blogger says:

    What a terrible accident.

    Perhaps it’s time to put an end to this event.

    Human life is worth more than a day of entertainment.

    1. SeaCay says:

      Always the same from the shroom’s… put an end to this and put an end to that. You sit in a corner and take no risks and feel you should .put an end to any human endeavor that could have an outcome you find distressing. Human life is worth more than a day of entertainment? Only if you live it. Give it a try.

  4. SeaCayisSick says:

    This air race better make some serious changes or be shut down. You have 74 year old men, flying places at 500 mph, right over the top of people at low altitudes. You are either stupid or crazy to go to this event. People say his age had nothing to do with it. Come on people. No matter how good of shape you are in at 74 your reflexs are not what they used to be. I mean Richard Petty looks to be in good shape, but you do not see him getting behind the wheel and driving into people at 200 MPH. Anyone who defends this event and the old guy flying into the ground obviously makes money from it. SeaCay is a promoter and only in it for the money. I hope they sue him for putting on an unsafe venue.

    1. SeaCay says:

      Wow, did you spot a little when you typed that? Maybe you’re right. Lets shut down people at 74 driving down the freeway and while we are legislating away every way for people to die accidentally, how about no more church vans with 9 people aboard or no more living where avalanches may occur and traveling via the airlines is just idiotic in view of the number of lives lost in a single airline crash. Bus travel isn’t much better either. I don’t promote the Reno Air Races and I don’t attend. I happen to have always believed that a crash like that was inevitable and I’ll go further and say that if they continue, it will happen again. I also believe that they should continue to have them if they want in spite of your hysteria just as I believe you should be allowed to go to your NASCAR events even though similar crashes have happened there and will happen again whether Richard Petty comes out of retirement or not.

      1. Lora Werry says:

        SeaCay Thank You, This is the first time at Reno AR in 40 yrs a loss of spectators has happened. We have lost pilots too soon in the past. I am more likely to slip and fall on my ass in my backyard or have a car accident within the next 5 yrs then the odds of air race accidents we rarely here about. Pilot was cleared physically that same day. He was headed for the optimist RV park right near there that my husband and I were at when this happened and he intentionally flew upward like they do with maydays but loss control because of mechanical problems wiht the tail and lost control and nose dived down wards. He did not land directly in the the box seats as stated before he avoided them but impact was so hard it caused an acre wide impact that spread fuel and shrapnel to cause the damage. If it were a Saturday or Sunday there would have been more casualties. Lets pray and concentrate on those who are still recovering and those that lost a mom or dad or brother, sister, grandparent and hope thier pain will be less in time. THe AR provide 10 million to charitiesw and non profits every year – vendors do not make much money on this event because they pay a percentage to the non profits that provide to others in need.

    2. John Cahill says:

      it was an equipment failure, and had nothing to do with the experienced pilot’s age. Young and old die that way…

  5. WisenCynical says:

    Im skeptical of this photo.. It looks like a photoshop job to me.

  6. jc says:

    I know nothing about airplane mechanics but my bro is a plane mechanic and says the promotoers made three outrageous mistakes that cost lives. He is 71 and does not fly any more due to being forgetful at times which is a senior citizen normal condition that goes with them thar golden(what a joke) years.

  7. Geary Tiffany says:

    Flight operations during the event are well thought out and scrupulously followed. However, aircraft modifications and adequate airworthiness reviews with supporting flight tests are marginal or in some cases non-existent. Both Indy car and NASCAR oversight in regards to horsepower and systems mods. could serve as a model and get this “Unlimited” word out of the vocabulary.

  8. John Munyer says:

    Super Bummer

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