RENO, Nevada | Sat Sep 17, 2011 5:44am EDT
(Reuters) – A vintage World War Two fighter plane crashed near the grandstand at a Nevada air race on Friday, killing at least three people including the elderly pilot and injuring more than 50 others, officials said.
The plane, a P-51 Mustang dubbed the “Galloping Ghost” that was being flown by well-known pilot Jimmy Leeward, crashed into a box seat area in front of the main grandstand at the Reno Air Races, said Mike Draper of public relations firm R&R Partners, which represents the race.
“I heard his engine and looked up. He was within 100 feet. He was coming right down on top of us,” witness Fred Scholz told CNN, adding that the plane had first flown closer to the stands than allowed. “It just happened very quick.”
The Federal Aviation Administration halted the air race after the crash, and was investigating the incident alongside the National Transportation Safety Board, an FAA official said.
Video apparently taken from the stands and posted on YouTube showed a plane plunging nose-down into the tarmac as spectators were heard gasping: “Oh, my God.”
Debris billowed near the crash site, and officials then told spectators to remain where they were so emergency workers could get to the scene.
“It was like a war zone where the box seats were,” said Dean Davis, an Oregon man who has attended the Reno Air Races for decades. “All the people were laying there.”
The FAA official, spokesman Ian Gregor, said that multiple spectator fatalities and critical injuries were reported but did not provide a number. FAA inspectors had been observing the race at the time of the crash, he said.
The head of the Reno Air Racing Association, Michael Houghton, put the number of injured at 54 people and said the 74-year-old pilot was among those killed.
‘WASN’T GOING TO RECOVER’
Mark Hasara of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a veteran of the Air Force who attended the race and witnessed the crash. “As soon as I saw his nose pointed at the ground, I knew he wasn’t going to recover,” Hasara told Reuters.
The Reno Air Races, which began in the mid-1960s, feature planes facing off in multi-lap races at an airfield north of Reno.
Renown Regional Medical Center spokesman Dan Davis said that at least two people were killed, a man and a woman. An event spokeswoman said the pilot had died in addition to the pair confirmed dead by Renown.
Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the regional emergency medical service authority, said 15 of the injured were in critical condition.
In a June video posted at the website for the air race, Leeward said the Galloping Ghost raced from 1946 to 1950 in the Cleveland Air Races and afterward in other events.
He said his crew cut 10 feet off the plane’s length and made other modifications to improve its aerodynamic abilities and reach speeds of 500 miles per hour.
“I know it will do the speed, the systems aren’t proven yet. We think they’re going to be OK,” Leeward said in the video dating from June.
Houghton said Leeward, a well-known real estate developer and pilot who maintained an air ranch in Ocala, Florida, was his good friend.
Leeward came from an aviation family as the son of a pilot, and his own sons have also flown planes. He worked as a stunt pilot on a few movies, including the 2002 release “Dragonfly.”
The Reno crash was the latest in a spate of fatal air show accidents since August.
Last month, the pilot of an aerobatic airplane died in a fiery crash in front of shocked onlookers at a weekend air show in Kansas City. In Michigan last month a wingwalker at an air show near Detroit plunged about 200 feet to his death as he tried to climb onto a helicopter in midair.