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3 dead, more than 50 hurt in Nev. air race crash


RENO, Nev. — As thousands watched in horror, a World War II-era fighter plane competing in a Nevada event described as a car race in the sky suddenly pitched upward, rolled and did a nose-dive toward the crowded grandstand.

The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, then slammed into the tarmac in front of VIP box seats and blew to pieces in front the pilot's family and a tight-knit group of friends who attend the annual event in Reno.

AP Photo/Ward Howes

A P-51 Mustang airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at the Reno Air show on Friday in Reno Nevada. The World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward plunged Friday into the edge of the grandstands during the popular air race creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.

"It absolutely disintegrated," said Tim O'Brien of Grass Valley, Calif., who attends the races every year. "I've never seen anything like that before."

The pilot and two spectators were killed and more than 50 were injured amid a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.

Authorities said it appears a mechanical failure with the P-51 Mustang — a class of fighter plane that can fly in excess of 500 mph — was to blame. Some credit the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, with preventing the crash from being far more deadly.

"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section," said Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, who watched the race with his two daughters.

Left in its wake were bloodied bodies spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene. Video of the aftermath shows a man with his leg severed at the knee.

Video and photos of the crash were captured by several people in the stands, and the horrific images of the wreckage were transmitted around the world within minutes.

Prior to Friday, 17 people had been killed at the National Championship Air Races since their start 1964, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

Two involved P-51s, the newspaper reported. In 1999, a P-51 disintegrated during a race, scattering debris and damaging a house. In 1994, one of the vintage craft crashed next to the east-west runway after engine failure sprayed the windshield with oil.

Organizers softened two of the curves pilots negotiate after crashes into nearby neighborhoods in 1998 and 1999. In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting local school officials to consider barring student field trips to the event.

Friday's crash was the first time spectators were killed or seriously injured, the Gazette-Journal reported.

Planes at the yearly event fly 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 cass of aircraft.

Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races, said at a news conference hours after the crash that there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control." He did not elaborate.

He said the rest of the races, which bring in tens of millions of dollars for the local economy, have been canceled as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.

"The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac," said Johnny Norman, who was at the show.

O'Brien, who is chairman of an air show in his hometown in California, was photographing Friday's races when the crash occurred.


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