RENO, Nev. (CBS 5) — At least nine people were killed and 54 others injured at a popular air show in Reno on Friday when a vintage World War II-era fighter plane crashed into the front of the grandstand, creating a horrific scene strewn with body parts and smoking debris.
A renowned Hollywood stunt pilot, identified as 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, was among those killed in the crash about 4:30 p.m. at the National Championship Air Races and Air Show, authorities said.
KCBS’ Bob Butler Reports:
Leeward was flying a P-51 Mustang named “Galloping Ghost” that witnesses said “nosedived” out of control without warning on its third lap, and was “pulverized” upon impact.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration were investigating the cause of the crash, but an air show official said there were indications that mechanical problems were to blame.
There appeared to be a “problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control,” explained Mike Houghton, president of the Reno Air Racing Association. He refused to elaborate further to reporters.
In an interview just a day before the crash, Leeward – whose plane can fly at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour – expressed confidence about his prospects in the event by proclaiming: “We’re as fast as anybody in the field, and maybe even faster.”
Video of the crash, posted on YouTube, showed Leeward’s plane plummeting from the sky, sending up clouds of dust and debris. Shocked spectators rose to their feet.
“I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn’t believe it,” said witness Maureen Higgins, who has been coming to the air show for 16 years and was sitting on Friday about 30 yards away from the crash. “It was gore. Unbelievable gore.”
Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told the Associated Press that the air show disaster was “probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades.”
The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people to Reno every year in September to watch various military and civilian planes race. They also have attracted scrutiny in the past over safety concerns, including four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008.
Houghton described Leeward, who has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot in numerous movies including “Amelia” and “Cloud Dancer,” as a “very qualified, very experienced pilot.”
He also suggested Leeward would have made every effort to avoid casualties on the ground if he knew he was going to crash.
“If it was in Jimmy’s power, he would have done everything he possibly could,” Houghton said.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. The AP and CNN Wire contributed to this report. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)