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US launches probe into 'horrific' air race crash

19 september 2011, 12:41
Photo courtesy of jalopnik.com
Photo courtesy of jalopnik.com
Photo courtesy of wtnh.com
Photo courtesy of wtnh.com
A US federal probe was underway Saturday to investigate a horrific crash of a World War II-era plane at a Nevada air race that left at least nine people dead and over 50 injured, AFP reports.

The vintage P-51 Mustang was participating in the National Championship Air Races over the desert outside Reno, Nevada when its elderly pilot, a race veteran, apparently lost control of the aircraft and it plunged at full speed into spectators. There were fears Saturday that the death toll would rise.

Amateur video of Friday's accident captured the moment the plane, a single-seat fighter aircraft from the 1940s called the "Galloping Ghost", barrel-rolled wildly through the sky and smashed at a near-vertical angle into a roped-off area for spectators, narrowly missing a grandstand packed with many more people.

At least 16 victims were in critical condition, hospitals reported.

"I did have an opportunity to visit the site, and it is horrific," Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval told reporters.

The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation and its officers have reached the crash site. The remainder of the air races have been canceled.

"Nothing will be off the table when this investigation begins," former NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker told CBS News.

"Clearly, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered," he said, adding that several video sources and possibly communications between the pilot and control tower would be studied.

"A number of things could have gone wrong, either operationally -- it could have had a high-speed stall, he could have had some parts that may have failed, he may have had a medical condition. Nothing will be off the table when the board begins its investigation," Rosenker.

The aircraft was flown by Florida businessman and pilot Jimmy Leeward, reported to be 74 years old. He had raced at the event since 1975, and had served as a stunt pilot for several Hollywood films.

Witnesses said the aircraft crashed into an area of box seats, while some said the pilot prevented even greater casualties by swerving to avoid hitting the grandstand itself.

"It pretty well wiped out the front of the box area," said Mike Houghton, the head of the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA). He declined to comment on how many people could have died, and said the number of injured was 54.

"We are all devastated by this tragedy," he added.

Video of the accident, shot from the grandstand, showed people gasping in horror as the plane came down.

RARA spokesman Mike Draper said the plane was a lap or two into the race when Leeward called in a mayday.

"We don't know why it crashed. The pilot did call in. He did pull out of the lap, which is what they do. They usually pull up, directly up to clear the race track," he added.

Eyewitness Ben Cissell praised the flying ace. "I think that that pilot in the last two seconds pulled up because he saw the bleachers and I would guess he probably saved 200 to 300 other people," he told CNN.

"I was about 100 feet from the crash site and I would think that the plane hit right at about the middle of those boxes," he said of the roped off area.

Another eyewitness, Gerald Lent, said: "It's just like a massacre. It's like a bomb went off... There (were) people lying all over the runway."

"One guy was cut in half. There's blood everywhere.... There's arms and legs," said Lent, quoted by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Houghton dismissed suggestions that the health of the pilot could have had a role in the crash.

"All of his medical records and everything were up to date, spot on and Jimmy was a very experienced and talented, qualified pilot," he said

Leeward's family voiced its shock on his Facebook page, saying: "We are deeply saddened by the tragedy at the air race today. Please join us in praying at this time for all the families affected."

The races over Reno are hair-raising events, with planes reaching speeds of 500 miles (800 kilometers) per hour, often flying wingtip to wingtip as low as 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground.

By Michael Thurston

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