(AP, ABC7) - A vintage World War II-era fighter plane plunged into the grandstands Friday during a popular annual air show, killing at least three people and injuring roughly 75 and creating a horrific scene strewn with body parts and smoking debris.
An official says there are indications that mechanical problems caused the World War II-era fighter plane to plunge into the grandstands. Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races, made the remarks at a news conference hours after the crash that sent at least 54 people to the hospital.
The pilot, 74-year-old movie stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, and at least two others were killed.
Houghton says it's too early to know for sure what caused the wreck, but said there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control."
“You could see that he tried to pull back under and try and miss as many people as possible,” said Carly Holmes, who was watching the race from bleacher seats, according to ABC News Radio. “He missed the bleachers but he hit the crowd."
Leeward is the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team and is a well-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies. Leeward also is a real estate salesman.
In a video interview posted online in June by the Reno Air Racing Association, Leeward says his goal was to win the 2011 race with the Mustang, the plane in which he crashed.
The P-51 Mustang is a World War II era fighter plane similar to one pictured here.
75 injured, 25 critically
Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, said 25 people were critically injured and another 25 people were seriously injured in the crash.
More than 25 more people were treated for minor injuries, she said. Kruse said the critically injured were considered to have life-threatening injuries.
Jeff Martinez, a KRNV weatherman, was just outside the air race grounds at the time of the crash. He said he saw the plane veer to the right and then "it just augered straight into the ground."
"You saw pieces and parts going everywhere," he said. "Everyone is in disbelief."
A video posted on YouTube by user slicker0492 appears to show the crash.
The Mustang plunged into the crashed into the box seat area at the front of the grandstand at the National Championship Air Races at about 4:30 p.m., said Mike Draper, a spokesman for the event.
A second video posted on YouTube by user lumberdoktor shows the crash from a different angle about 50 second into the video. The man filming then runs toward the scene.
One person is heard asking “Are there any EMTs (emergency medical technicians) in the stands?” Sirens are heard in the background.
About 3:15 minutes into the video, the man is filming from the stands above the crash scene. An announcer is heard telling the audience to “gather up, let’s move away from the scene” while emergency vehicles are pulling up.
The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people every year in September to watch various military and civilian planes race.
Federal investigation to launch
The National Transportation Safety Board will send a team to investigate the crash, a spokesperson confirmed to ABC7. The team will launch from Reagan National Airport Saturday morning.
The remainder of the National Championship Air Races were canceled, race officials said.
The races have attracted scrutiny in the past over safety concerns, including four pilots 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.