‘Mass casualties’ after crash at Reno air show

September 17th, 2011 by Staff

www.msnbc.com – A vintage World War II-era fighter plane crashed into a seating area Friday at a popular annual Reno air race show, killing at least three people, including the pilot, and injuring more than 50. Officials feared the death toll would rise.

Witnesses reported a horrific mix of blood, body parts and smoking debris strewn across the crash site.

The accident happened just before 4:30 p.m. during the National Championship Air Races at the Reno-Stead Airport.

Witnesses told KTVN-TV that planes in the Unlimited race were ascending when one aircraft, a vintage P-51 Mustang flown by a renowned air racer and movie stunt pilot, nose-dived into a box-seat area near a spectator grandstand in the southeast corner.

The plane disintegrated, strewing debris into the nearby stands.

Mike Draper, a spokesman for the Reno National Championship Air Races, described the scene as “a mass-casualty situation.” Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene.

“Dear friends, 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,” Leeward’s family wrote in a message posted on Facebook.

Renown Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter said at least two others taken to the hospital had died, but did not provide their identities.

‘Unbelievable gore’

Witness Maureen Higgins of Alabama said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control of the plane. She told the Gazette-Journal she was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and the man in front of her was struck in the head by a piece of debris.

“I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn’t believe it. I’m talking an arm, a leg,” Higgins told the newspaper. “The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore.”

Video apparently taken from the stands and posted on YouTube showed a plane crashing nose-down at the show after several other planes raced by in the air.

Spectators could be heard gasping: “Oh my God.” A photograph captured the doomed plane, nose down just before impact.

“It was in the Unlimited Gold race on about the second lap when the third-place aircraft, No. 177, the Galloping Ghost flown by Jimmy Leeward experienced mechanical problems,” said Tim O’Brien, a Grass Valley resident on assignment at the races for The Union newspaper. “The plane vaulted violently upward, followed by a dive straight into the front of the reserve grandstands.”

Jeff Martinez, a KRNV weatherman, was just outside the air race grounds at the time. He said he saw the plane veer to the right and then went “straight into the ground.”

“You saw pieces and parts going everywhere,” he said.

‘Like a massacre’

Local TV stations aired videotape of the scene that showed numerous people being treated at the scene or being carried on stretchers to ambulances.

Debris from the crash was strewn through a seating area in front of the grandstands.

“It’s just like a massacre. It’s like a bomb went off,” said Dr. Gerald Lent of Reno, who witnessed the crash, told the Gazette-Journal. “There are people lying all over the runway.”

He added: “One guy was cut in half. There’s blood everywhere. There’s arms and legs.”

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 transported by private vehicle, which they are not including in their count.

Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 were considered in critical condition, 13 were in serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 had non-serious or non-life threatening injuries.

“This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades,” Kruse told The AP. “The community is pulling together to try to deal with the cope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it.”
Image: Medics help injured bystanders out of a helicopter into Renown Medical Center
Liz Margerum/The Reno Gazette-Jo
Medics help injured bystanders out of a helicopter into Renown Medical Center.

Houghton, of Reno Air Races, said it was too early to know for sure what caused the wreck, but there appeared to be a “problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control.”

The National Transportation Safety Board was taking over the investigation and it was due to hold a press conference Saturday.

The NTSB issued a statement on YouTube, expressing its condolences to the victims and their relatives and saying it would send a team of investigators Saturday morning from Washington D.C. to Reno.

Houghton said the air races were canceled for the weekend.

It’s not known how many people were watching the air races at the time of crash. Houghton said the grandstands and box seats can hold tens of thousands of spectators.

Leeward, a real estate developer from Ocala, Fla. and the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, had flown in the Reno air races since 1975, Houghton said. Leeward raced with several members of his family and friends, race officials said.

The aircraft he was piloting was a P-51D, a version of the storied Mustang fighter from World War II.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Leeward appeared in a number of movies as a stunt pilot, including “Amelia” in 2009, “The Tuskegee Airmen” in 1995 and “Smokey and the Bandit Part 3″ in 1983.

A 2010 newspaper article said that Leeward had made major modifications to his plane for racing, including shaving five feet off of each wing and reducing the canopy’s size.

His website said the plane’s engine produced 3,800 horsepower and the aircraft was rated to 550 mph. The article said that for races, Leeward was required to wear a helmet, fire protection suit, oxygen mask and parachute.

Race scrutiny

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement he was “deeply saddened” by news of the accident. “My thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives and with those who were wounded in this horrific tragedy,” he said.

Governor Brian Sandoval visited the crash site, NBC News reported.

“Northern Nevadans grieve again this evening with the news of casualties and injuries at the Reno Championship Air Races,” he said. “My family and I extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, and I know every member of the Nevada family is thinking tonight of those we have lost and those we cherish.”

He praised officials and medical staff for their efforts, saying they had “once again demonstrated that training and compassion come together when Nevadans are most in need.”

The National Championship Air Races draw 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, 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.

The competition is done in six classes of aircraft, the races’ website says. The unlimited class “has generally been populated by stock or modified WWII fighters with the P-51 Mustangs, F-8F Bearcats and Hawker Sea Fury being flown most often. The Unlimited Class flies in speeds exceeding 500 mph,” the website says.

The Federal Aviation Administration and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races.

The air race organization must develop a comprehensive air race plan. Among other things, the plan includes requirements for pilot and aircraft qualifications, pilot experience and currency requirements, pilot qualification training and testing before they’re allowed to get an air race pilot card, and a detailed course layout.

FAA closely examines the organization’s race course and proposed spectator area with the goal of ensuring that a crash or midair collision does not endanger spectators. Pilots also must take part in a a pylon racing seminar in order to participate in the air race.

FAA inspectors closely observe pilots’ practice runs. They also conduct a thorough examination of pilot and aircraft records to make sure they meet all qualifications.

Before qualifying heats and the race itself, FAA inspectors brief pilots on the route, allowed maneuvers and emergency procedures.

FAA inspectors and officials from the air race association closely observe the races to ensure pilots follow all applicable policies, rules and regulations.

“Dear friends, 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,” Leeward’s family wrote in a message posted on Facebook.

Renown Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter said at least two others taken to the hospital had died, but did not provide their identities.

‘Unbelievable gore’

Witness Maureen Higgins of Alabama said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control of the plane. She told the Gazette-Journal she was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and the man in front of her was struck in the head by a piece of debris.

“I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn’t believe it. I’m talking an arm, a leg,” Higgins told the newspaper. “The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore.”

Video apparently taken from the stands and posted on YouTube showed a plane crashing nose-down at the show after several other planes raced by in the air.

Spectators could be heard gasping: “Oh my God.” A photograph captured the doomed plane, nose down just before impact.

“It was in the Unlimited Gold race on about the second lap when the third-place aircraft, No. 177, the Galloping Ghost flown by Jimmy Leeward experienced mechanical problems,” said Tim O’Brien, a Grass Valley resident on assignment at the races for The Union newspaper. “The plane vaulted violently upward, followed by a dive straight into the front of the reserve grandstands.”

Jeff Martinez, a KRNV weatherman, was just outside the air race grounds at the time. He said he saw the plane veer to the right and then went “straight into the ground.”

“You saw pieces and parts going everywhere,” he said.

‘Like a massacre’

Local TV stations aired videotape of the scene that showed numerous people being treated at the scene or being carried on stretchers to ambulances.

Debris from the crash was strewn through a seating area in front of the grandstands.

“It’s just like a massacre. It’s like a bomb went off,” said Dr. Gerald Lent of Reno, who witnessed the crash, told the Gazette-Journal. “There are people lying all over the runway.”

He added: “One guy was cut in half. There’s blood everywhere. There’s arms and legs.”

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 transported by private vehicle, which they are not including in their count.

Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 were considered in critical condition, 13 were in serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 had non-serious or non-life threatening injuries.

“This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades,” Kruse told The AP. “The community is pulling together to try to deal with the cope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it.”

Houghton, of Reno Air Races, said it was too early to know for sure what caused the wreck, but there appeared to be a “problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control.”

The National Transportation Safety Board was taking over the investigation and it was due to hold a press conference Saturday.

The NTSB issued a statement on YouTube, expressing its condolences to the victims and their relatives and saying it would send a team of investigators Saturday morning from Washington D.C. to Reno.

Houghton said the air races were canceled for the weekend.

It’s not known how many people were watching the air races at the time of crash. Houghton said the grandstands and box seats can hold tens of thousands of spectators.

Leeward, a real estate developer from Ocala, Fla. and the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, had flown in the Reno air races since 1975, Houghton said. Leeward raced with several members of his family and friends, race officials said.

The aircraft he was piloting was a P-51D, a version of the storied Mustang fighter from World War II.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Leeward appeared in a number of movies as a stunt pilot, including “Amelia” in 2009, “The Tuskegee Airmen” in 1995 and “Smokey and the Bandit Part 3″ in 1983.

A 2010 newspaper article said that Leeward had made major modifications to his plane for racing, including shaving five feet off of each wing and reducing the canopy’s size.

His website said the plane’s engine produced 3,800 horsepower and the aircraft was rated to 550 mph. The article said that for races, Leeward was required to wear a helmet, fire protection suit, oxygen mask and parachute.

Race scrutiny

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement he was “deeply saddened” by news of the accident. “My thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives and with those who were wounded in this horrific tragedy,” he said.

Governor Brian Sandoval visited the crash site, NBC News reported.

“Northern Nevadans grieve again this evening with the news of casualties and injuries at the Reno Championship Air Races,” he said. “My family and I extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, and I know every member of the Nevada family is thinking tonight of those we have lost and those we cherish.”

He praised officials and medical staff for their efforts, saying they had “once again demonstrated that training and compassion come together when Nevadans are most in need.”

The National Championship Air Races draw 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, 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.

The competition is done in six classes of aircraft, the races’ website says. The unlimited class “has generally been populated by stock or modified WWII fighters with the P-51 Mustangs, F-8F Bearcats and Hawker Sea Fury being flown most often. The Unlimited Class flies in speeds exceeding 500 mph,” the website says.

The Federal Aviation Administration and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races.

The air race organization must develop a comprehensive air race plan. Among other things, the plan includes requirements for pilot and aircraft qualifications, pilot experience and currency requirements, pilot qualification training and testing before they’re allowed to get an air race pilot card, and a detailed course layout.

FAA closely examines the organization’s race course and proposed spectator area with the goal of ensuring that a crash or midair collision does not endanger spectators. Pilots also must take part in a a pylon racing seminar in order to participate in the air race.

FAA inspectors closely observe pilots’ practice runs. They also conduct a thorough examination of pilot and aircraft records to make sure they meet all qualifications.

Before qualifying heats and the race itself, FAA inspectors brief pilots on the route, allowed maneuvers and emergency procedures.

FAA inspectors and officials from the air race association closely observe the races to ensure pilots follow all applicable policies, rules and regulations.


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