As thousands watched in horror, a World War II-era fighter plane competing in a Nevada air race suddenly pitched upward, rolled and did a nose-dive toward the crowded grandstand.
The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, then slammed into a VIP box seats section in front where his family and close friends were watching. Three people were killed and more than 50 injured, many seriously, as smoking debris littered the concrete tarmac.
“It absolutely disintegrated,” said Tim O’Brien of Grass Valley, California, who attends the races every year. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Authorities say it appears that a mechanical failure with the P-51 Mustang — a class of fighter plane that can fly more than 800kph — was to blame. Some credit the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, with preventing the crash from being far more deadly. Leeward was among those killed.
“If he wouldn’t have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section,” said Tim Linville, 48, of Reno.
Video of the aftermath shows a man with his leg severed at the knee.
The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people to Reno every September to watch military and civilian planes race in what is dubbed “car races in the sky.” The Federation Aviation Administration and air race organizers spend months preparing for air races as they develop a plan involving pilot qualifications, training and testing along with a layout for the course.
However, the Air Races have been deadly before. In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting school officials to consider barring student field trips there.
Two other pilots died at the event in 1994, and organizers softened two of the course’s curves after two other pilots crashed into nearby neighborhoods in 1998 and 1999.
Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 15m off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 800kph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.
Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races, said 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 were canceled as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.
“The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac,” said Johnny Norman, who was at the show.
O’Brien, who is chairman of an air show in his hometown in California, was photographing Friday’s races when the crash occurred.
He said the P-51 Mustang was racing six other planes, and was in the process of moving from third place into second, when it pitched violently upward, rolled and then headed straight down.