TRAGIC TURN: Multiple deaths in crash at 48th annual Reno Air Races |

TRAGIC TURN: Multiple deaths in crash at 48th annual Reno Air Races

Sun News Service

The 48th annual National Championship Air Races in Reno were struck by tragedy Friday afternoon when a competing P51 Mustang airplane crashed into a grandstand area full of fans.

and#8220;It was in the Unlimited Gold race on about the second lap when the third-place aircraft, No. 177, the Galloping Ghost flown by Jimmy Leeward, experienced mechanical problems,and#8221; said Tim O’Brien, a Grass Valley resident on assignment at the races for The Union. and#8220;The plane pitched violently upward, followed by a dive straight into the front of the reserve grandstands.

and#8220;There were hundreds of people in the stands,” O’Brien reported immediately after the crash. “There are definitely casualties. The plane disintegrated and there are scores of ambulances out there right now.and#8221;

Federal investigators on Saturday began looking into what caused the pilot to lose control of his World War II-era plane and crash next to a VIP section at a Reno air race in an accident that killed at least three people and sent dozens to the hospital.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams told The Associated Press Saturday that a team has arrived from Washington to join regional officials. He said it’s too early to say what caused the crash, though event organizers suggested a mechanical problem.

Among the dead was pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., a veteran airman and stunt pilot, according to Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races told the Associated Press. The Reno Gazette Journal reported the rest of the scheduled Air Races, planned through Sunday, have been canceled.

Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told the Associated Press 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 in serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious or non-life threatening.

“This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades,” Kruse told the AP. “The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it.”

O’Brien, who has been photographing the annual Air Races since 1973, said he and his brother, Brian, were shooting the race 300 yards from where the plane made impact.

and#8220;I saw him pull up, which they do in May Day situations, and I immediately pointed the camera on the plane,and#8221; O’Brien said. and#8220;It happened so fast. He was over us … and then coming straight down.

and#8220;When they’re racing, they set the trim tabs straight down. And if you look at the photo of the plane upside down. That slot on the tail, it’s missing. When that came off, that caused the plane to pitch up violently. The plane went straight up and was still under full power. From what I saw, it torque-rolled and pointed down. It came straight down under full power. As soon as it crashed, there was a huge debris explosion, but fortunately no flames.and#8221;

Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the show for 16 years, 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 told the AP. “The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore.”

Nevada County native and pilot Juan Browne was working on the other side of the air field when the crash occurred.

and#8220;We were hosting an event maybe three miles away on the opposite side of the airfield,and#8221; he told The Union by phone from Reno minutes after the Friday afternoon crash. and#8220;It was toward the end of the Gold heat race … The lead aircraft was clocked at around 497 miles per hour just before the accident. The Galloping Ghost had just passed another aircraft, maybe in the number three position, when it just went vertical.and#8221;

An eyewitness told Browne, who is a pilot for American Airlines and has been attending the Reno Air Races since 1974, he saw the Galloping Ghost pull up into a near vertical position, loop over the top and proceed straight down toward the box seats area of the grandstands.

and#8220;Nobody knows what caused the plane to pitch,and#8221; said Browne. and#8220;It could be any kind of failure in that high-performance P-51D aircraft.and#8221;

Browne said there was an explosion on impact, but he didn’t see a fireball. and#8220;There is dirt and debris everywhere,and#8221; he said. and#8220;And there is fuel all over the place. and#8220;

Frank Kasparian, a former Air Force pilot (26 years) who lives in the Smartsville area, has served on the crew of a friend’s plane at the races the past four years. Kasparian, reached by phone in Marysville Friday, said the grandstands are on one side of the runway, with an oval racing track on the other.

Planes, reaching up to speeds of 300 to 400 mph, face the stands when making a lefthand turn from the back to the front of the track.

But, he said, race organizers have already placed a high priority on safety.

and#8220;They take very clear and careful steps as to who they allow to fly,and#8221; Kasparian said. and#8220;Not just anyone can show up and say and#8216;I’m a pilot, I want to race.’ They have to go to race school to qualify for it. But they are flying very close to one another at awfully high speeds.and#8221;

Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot, the AP reported. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including “Amelia” and “Cloud Dancer.”

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

“They’re more fun. More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed and more speed,” Leeward said.

Houghton described Leeward as “a good friend. Everybody knows him. It’s a tight knit family. He’s been here for a long, long time,” Houghton said.

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.

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.

and#8212; The Union Staff Writers Brian Hamilton, Kyle Magin and Jeff Ackerman contributed to this report.

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