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Saturday, September 17, 2011

'It was like a bomb went off': Three killed and 50 injured at U.S. air race as World War II fighter plane crashes into spectators

-Horror scene of body parts and debris strewn across Nevada airfield
-Vintage plane was flown by veteran Hollywood stunt pilot
-Victims taken to three hospitals by emergency crews and in private vehicles
-15 in critical condition, 13 serious with potentially life-threatening injuries
-Air race safety concerns raised after four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008

By Daily Mail Reporter

Last moments: The dramatic final seconds as the out-of-control P-51 Mustang crashes into the crowd at the air show in Reno, Nevada

A vintage World War II fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot plunged into spectators during an air race killing three people and injuring more than 50 spectators.

The P-51 Mustang, flown by 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, spiralled out of control without warning and disintegrated on impact as it nosedived into a VIP area.

Bloodied bodies were spread near the grandstand as other spectators tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada.

Horrific: The vintage plane crashes into the edge of the grandstand killing three people, including the veteran pilot and injuring more than 50 spectators

Terror: The plane explodes on impact blasting debris through the air as spectators duck for cover

Panic: Some spectators crouch down while others watch as smoke drifts from the crash site where the plane plunged close to the grandstand

Out of control: The P-51 Mustang airplane is shown just before crashing at the Reno Air show

Disaster: The vintage plane, circled, is watched by spectators just moments before it plunges into the ground

Disintegration: The World War 11 planes crashes as shocked air race fans watch in disbelief

The cause of yesterday's crash, in front of an estimated 75,000 spectators at 4.30pm local time (12.30am today BST), was not immediately known. But an event official said there were indications mechanical problems were involved.

Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the show for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control.

She was sitting about 30yds away from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after a piece of 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,' Ms Higgins said. ' I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore.'

Mr Leeward from Ocala, Florida, who flew the P-51 Mustang named the Galloping Ghost, was a well-known racing pilot. He had flown more than 120 races and was a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including Amelia and Cloud Dancer

The identities of the two others who died are still unknown while a total of 56 people are being treated in three hospitals near the crash scene.

Stephanie Kruse, a spokesman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, said 15 of the injured were considered in critical condition, 13 were serious with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious.

'This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades,' Ms Kruse said. 'The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it.'

The P-51 Mustang crashed into a VIP box-seat area in front of the grandstand. Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races said Mr Leeward appeared to have 'lost control of the aircraft.'

There appeared to be a 'problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control,' he told a news conference. Witnesses claims they heard a popping sound moments before the plane started to nosedive.

Tim Linville, 48, from Reno, said the pilot appeared to lose partial control off the plane when he veered off course and flew near where he was standing with his two daughters.

He said: 'I told the girls to run and the pilot pulled the plane straight up, but he couldn't do anything else with it. That's when it nosedived right into the box seats.'

Remains: Debris from the plane that crashed at the Reno Air Races is scattered in front of the grandstand at the Stead Airport

Destruction: The plane plunged into the stands at the event in what an official described as a 'mass casualty situation'

Emergency: Medics help the injured out of a rescue helicopter into Renown Medical Center

Rush: Medics quickly wheel an injured victim into the Medical Center. He was one of more than 50 injured

Mr Linville said that 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 hadn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section and hurt thousands of people,' he added.

He described how the plane shattered like an 'enormous water balloon', sending shrapnel and debris into the crowd. 'It was just flying everywhere,' he said.

KRNV-TV weatherman Jeff Martinez, who was just outside the air race grounds at the time, said the plane veered to the right and then 'it just augured straight into the ground.'

'You saw pieces and parts going everywhere,' he said. 'Everyone is in disbelief.'

Dr Gerald Lent, who witnessed the crash, told the Reno Gazette-Journal: 'It’s just like a massacre. It’s like a bomb went off. There are people lying all over the runway. One guy was cut in half. There’s blood everywhere. There’s arms and legs.'

Tanya Breining, off Hayward, California, told KTVU-TV in San Francisco: 'It was absolute carnage... It looked like more than a bomb exploded.'Another witness, Ronald Sargis, said he was sitting in the box seat area near the finish line.

Last flight: The P-51 gets ready for take-off just before its ill-fated flight at the Reno Air show

'Galloping Ghost': Jimmy Leeward, 80, photographed with his P51 Mustang in September, 2010. A spokesman for Reno's National Championship Air Races says it was this plane piloted by Mr Leeward that crashed

Tragic: The WW II fighter jet veered to the right and then 'it just augured straight into the ground', according to a witness

'We could see the plane coming around the far turn - it was in trouble,' Mr Sargis told KCRA-TV in Sacramento. 'About six or seven boxes down from us, it impacted into the front row.'

He said the pilot appeared to do all he could to avoid crashing into the crowd. Response teams immediately went to work, Mr Sargis said. After the crash Sargis went up a few rows into the grandstand to view the downed plane.

'It appeared to be just pulverized,' he said

Mr Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, revealed he had a particular fondness for the P-51 which was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among itsfamous pilots was fighter ace Chuck Yeager.

In an interview with the Ocala Star-Banner last year, he said: 'They're more fun. More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed and more speed,' Mr Leeward said.

Model: Pilot Jimmy Leeward holds a scale model of his favourite P-51 Mustang at his home in Florida

Mr Leeward talked about racing strategy in an interview Thursday with LiveAirShow TV while standing in front of his plane.

'Right now I think we've calculated out, we're as fast as anybody in the field, or maybe even a little faster,' he said. 'But to start with, we didn't really want to show our hand until about Saturday or Sunday. We've been playing poker since last Monday.

'And so, it's ready, we're ready to show a couple more cards, so we'll see on Friday what happens, and on Saturday we'll probably go ahead and play our third ace, and on Sunday we'll do our fourth ace.'

Mr Houghton described Mr Leeward as 'a good friend. Everybody knows him. It's a tight knit family. He's been here for a long, long time,' Mr Houghton said.

He also described Mr Leeward as a 'very qualified, very experienced pilot" who was in good medical condition. 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,' Mr Houghton said.

The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people 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. 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 500mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

The FAA and air race organisers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualification, training and testing along with a layout for the course. The FAA inspects pilots' practice runs and brief pilots on the route manoeuvres and emergency procedures.

Senator Harry Reid issued a statement saying he was 'deeply saddened' about the crash.

'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. 'I am so grateful to our first responders for their swift action and will continue to monitor this situation as it develops.'

A commercial flight from Las Vegas to Reno was delayed while waiting for a delivery of blood following the plane crash.

Southwest Flight 2990 was delayed after the pilot told passengers he was waiting for an emergency supply intended for victims of the crash.

Blood banks were encouraging people to donate in the wake of the disaster.

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