RENO, Nev. – A World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot plunged Friday into the edge of the grandstands during a popular air race, killing three people, injuring more than 50 spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.
The plane, piloted by 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, spiraled out of control without warning and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene.
Authorities were investigating the cause, but an official with the event said there were indications that mechanical problems were to blame.
Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the air races 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 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.”
Among the dead was Leeward, of Ocala, Fla., a veteran airman and movie stunt pilot who named his P-51 Mustang fighter plane the “Galloping Ghost,” according to Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races. Officials earlier had said Leeward was 80.
Renown Regional 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 56 injury victims to three hospitals. She said they also observed a number of people being transported by private vehicle, which are not including in their count.
Kruse said of the 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, a class of fighter plane that can fly at speeds in excess of 500 mph, crashed into a box-seat area in front of the grandstand at about 4:30 p.m., race spokesman Mike Draper said. Houghton said Leeward appeared to have “lost control of the aircraft,” though details on why that happened weren’t immediately known.
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.”
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 “Cloud Dancer.”
In an interview with the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner last year, he described how he had flown 250 types of planes and had 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.
The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people to Reno every year in September to watch various military and civilian planes race. They also have attracted scrutiny in the past over safety concerns, including four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008.
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.