Inquiry into Reno crash begins as toll hits 9

Mechanical error among possible causes, officials say

The vintage P-51 Mustang crashed into the edge of the grandstands at the air show in Reno Friday afternoon. Several people injured on the ground were in critical condition, hospital officials said, including some victims with severed limbs. The vintage P-51 Mustang crashed into the edge of the grandstands at the air show in Reno Friday afternoon. Several people injured on the ground were in critical condition, hospital officials said, including some victims with severed limbs. (Ward Howes/Associated Press)
By Elizabeth A. Harris and Jesse McKinley
New York Times / September 18, 2011

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RENO - It was, for fans and followers of the high-speed sport of air racing, a sure sign of serious trouble: a vintage P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter known as the “Cadillac of the Skies,’’ pitching violently skyward, in a frantic effort by the pilot to gain altitude - and to buy time.

And then, just seconds later, that fight - and the flight - was over, as the plane plunged into a crowd assembled at the National Championship Air Races and Air Show in Reno.

“I saw him pull up and then tip over to the right,’’ said Howard Stubble, a member of a competing team. “And then our hearts stopped, because we knew what was coming.’’

Federal investigators arrived here yesterday at the site of the deadly accident, which killed at least nine people, including the pilot, and injured dozens of spectators. The Reno police said during a news conference yesterday afternoon that the deaths included seven people who were killed on the tarmac, including the pilot, and two who died at local hospitals.

The accident left several victims clinging to life in critical condition, hospital officials here said, including some victims with severed limbs. And while race officials and witnesses suggested that a mechanical error - possibly involving the tail - had caused the crash, others cautioned that determining a cause would take time. “We’re just starting our on-scene phase of the investigation,’’ said Terry Williams, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Whatever the cause, the accident - one of a series over the years at the air races here and nationwide - seemed likely to raise questions over whether the thrill of the events, billed as “world’s fastest motor sport,’’ was reason enough to risk fans’ lives.

Meanwhile, another World War II-era plane crashed and burst into flames on a runway at a West Virginia air show yesterday, the Associated Press reported.

Officials reported no injuries among spectators at the airfield. Details on the pilot’s condition were unavailable.

Race officials stressed that the Nevada accident was the first in the event’s 47-year history to involve spectators, but nevertheless canceled the rest of the five-day air show, which usually includes dozen of events, and puts millions of dollars into the local economy.

The officials identified the pilot as Jimmy Leeward, 74, a real estate developer who had flown in the event many times. According to his Facebook page, Leeward, of Ocala, Fla., had more than 30 years of flight experience.

He was flying a modified P-51 Mustang, a World War II-era fighter nicknamed the Galloping Ghost, and had commented in an interview with Live Airshow TV, a broadcaster of aviation events, that his plane was “as fast as anybody in the field or maybe even a little faster.’’

The accident occurred about 4:20 p.m. at Reno-Stead Airport, a small general aviation outpost in the hills north of the city on a fair-weather afternoon with little wind.

It was the last race of the day on Friday, a marquee event noted for its blistering speeds, skilled pilots, and low altitudes, with the planes flying as low as 100 feet, often nearly touching the wingtips of other aircraft.

Leeward was apparently running behind the leaders when disaster struck. “We saw them come through: number one, number two, and he was 3,’’ said Jack Reinholz, a retired police officer from Fairfax, Calif., who was watching from a parking lot packed with recreational vehicles just south of the airstrip. “And all of the sudden, he pulled straight up.’’

R. John Hansman Jr., a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that the aircraft involved in the accident was one of “the fastest piston-engineered planes ever built,’’ capable of speeds of more than 400 miles an hour, all while pulling their pilots at up to 6 G’s.

Such conditions, he said, can turn fatal quickly. “It’s definitely higher risk than normal flight operations, sort of like race cars versus normal cars,’’ Hansman said. “They’re flying very, very close to the ground, so there is very little margin for error.’’

Theories like that were still conjecture as official investigators combed the wreckage yesterday afternoon.

The crash was the latest in a series of deadly accidents at air shows this year. Last month, an aerial stuntman plunged 200 feet to his death as he tried to perform a plane-to-helicopter stunt in Harrison Township, Mich. Standing on the wing of a small plane, he twice grabbed the skid of a helicopter, then fell on the third try.

Days earlier, at an air show in Kansas City, Mo., a pilot was killed as his plane spiraled into a fiery crash after he was unable complete a stunt.

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