RENO - 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.
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. Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races, said Leeward appeared to have lost control of the aircraft, though details on why that happened weren't immediately known.
Houghton 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.
"The plane pitched violently upward, followed by a dive straight into the front of the reserve grandstands," said Tim O'Brien, a Grass Valley, Calif., resident on assignment at the races for The Union, a sister newspaper of the Nevada Appeal.
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.
"I saw him pull up, which they do in Mayday situations, and I immediately pointed the camera on the plane," O'Brien said. "It happened so fast. He was over us ... and then coming straight down.
"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."
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 Houghton of Reno Air Races. Officials earlier 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 a total of 56 injury victims to three hospitals. She said they also observed a number of people being taken by private vehicle, which they 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 had injuries that were non-serious or non-life threatening.
Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, said the pilot appeared to lose partial control off the plane when he veered off course and flew over the bleachers near where Linville was standing with his two daughters.
"I told the girls to run and the pilot pulled the plane straight up, but he couldn't do anything else with it," Linville told the AP. "That's when it nosedived right into the box seats."
Linville said after the plane went straight up, it barrel rolled and inverted downward, crashing into an area where at least 20 people were sitting.
"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section" where thousands of people were sitting, Linville 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 and accidents, including one in which four pilots were 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.
The rest of the races have been canceled as the NTSB investigates.
Those wishing to check on the status of loved ones should call (775) 337-5800 or locally dialing 211. We appreciate all of the thoughts and support that have been extended from around the world this evening.
• The Grass Valley (Calif.) Union and Associated Press reporters SCOTT SOONER and MARTIN GRIFFITH contributed to this report.