A World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot plunged Friday into the edge of the grandstands during a popular air race, killing three people, injuring more than 50 spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.
The plane, piloted by 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, spiraled out of control without warning and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene.
Authorities were investigating the cause, but an official with the event said there were indications that mechanical problems were to blame.
Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the air races for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control.
She was sitting about 30 yards away from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after 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,” Higgins said “The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore.”
Among the dead was Leeward, of Ocala, Fla., a veteran airman and movie stunt pilot who named his P-51 Mustang fighter plane the “Galloping Ghost,” according to Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races. Officials earlier said Leeward was 80.
Renown Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed that two others died, but did not provide their identities.
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.
“This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades,” Kruse told The Associated Press. “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, a class of fighter plane that can fly at speeds in excess of 500 mph, crashed into a box-seat area in front of the grandstand at about 4:30 p.m., race spokesman Mike Draper said. Houghton said Leeward appeared to have “lost control of the aircraft,” though details on why that happened weren’t immediately known.
Houghton said at a news conference hours after the crash that there appeared to be a “problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control.” He did not elaborate.
He said the rest of the races have been canceled as the NTSB investigates.
Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, said the pilot appeared to lose partial control off the plane when he veered off course and flew over the bleachers where Linville was sitting with his two daughters.
“I told the girls to run and the pilot pulled the plane straight up, but he couldn’t do anything else with it,” Linville told the AP. “That’s when it nose-dived right into the box seats.”
Linville said 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 wouldn’t have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section,” and hurt thousands of people, Linville said.
Linville said the plane smashed into the ground and shattered like an enormous water balloon, sending shrapnel and debris into the crowd.
“It was just flying everywhere,” he said.