RENO, Nev. — Investigators were scrambling to determine what caused a powerful World War II vintage racing plane traveling at up to 400 mph to plunge toward spectators at the fabled Reno air races late Friday afternoon, leaving a shattered trail of twisted debris and broken bodies.
At least three people were confirmed dead, including the pilot, and more than 50 were injured, about 15 of them critically. Because of the number and the extent of the injuries, the death toll could rise, officials said.
“I did have an opportunity to visit the site, and it is horrific,” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said after the nation’s premier aviation race turned swiftly into a disaster scene for onlookers seated near the path of the deep-throated planes hurtling 400 feet overhead.
The revamped P-51 Mustang known as the Galloping Ghost was piloted by veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, a longtime air racer and a Florida land developer.
“As I saw the plane coming directly at us, I dove,” said Nick Sorrentino, 19, an audio technician who was standing just below the stands when the plane hit. “It was mass chaos. People running. People on the ground. Body parts all over the ground.”
The National Championship Air Races in Reno feature some of the fastest racing planes in the world traveling at breakneck speed around pylons on a course suspended above Reno-Stead Airport, about 15 miles north of the city.
Danger is an expected part of the program for pilots — 19 others have died in the races since 1964. But Friday’s accident was the first to involve spectators, race president Mike Houghton said.
“When you fly an airplane, there are certain risks just in taking off and landing, and when you add the dimension of racing, it’s a fast sport; it’s not unlike Indianapolis or NASCAR,” he said.
The P-51 was racing in the “gold” heat of the powerful “unlimited” category of planes when, witnesses said, it suddenly began to shudder.
The plane veered up, then rolled over and plunged almost vertically toward the runway in front of the spectator seats, showering the first two rows with debris as it hit with an impact so ferocious it left a crater and very little else.
Witnesses said the pilot appeared to have struggled mightily to steer the plane away from the stands but had minimal control.
“Being a pilot, you could see trouble as soon as he hit the apex of his pullout,” said Ken Wiegand, a civilian pilot from Reno who was sitting in the stands at the other end of the field.
“You could tell he was in trouble and he was probably going to crash. It took about five seconds for all of this to happen.”
Mike Brauer, 46, an aircraft mechanic from Dallas who attended the event, described the crash as “shocking.”
“It looked like it was coming down on us, but lucky for us it kept going,” Bauer said. “Before I knew it, the first responders were everywhere. They really came out of the woodwork.”
Houghton said there were no immediate indications of the cause of the accident, but said there appeared to be a problem with the airplane.
“The plane was flying on its course,” he said. “Different people see different things, but there appeared to be some air flight problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control. We all know what the end result was on that.”
Videos showed horrified spectators rising to their feet and shouting, “Oh my God!” as two puffs of dust and debris — one from the plane, the other perhaps from the engine — billowed into the air.
By evening, a few airport employees, looking shaken, were still standing in an eerily silent hangar full of racing planes. One man in a pilot’s jacket approached one of them and asked where he could find a grief counselor.
Outside, vending stands advertising Southern barbecue and Coors Light stood empty. The spectator stands and runway, barricaded from access, were shrouded in darkness.
Houghton said the first two rows of box seats nearest the runway were hit with debris. Spectators in the stands appeared largely unhurt, he said. The site quickly turned into a scene of mayhem, with loudspeakers calling for those with medical experience to move quickly to offer aid.
A Vietnam-era helicopter on static display as part of the show was pushed into service and loaded with victims, then airlifted to a nearby hospital. Three hospitals took in the injured in what Houghton described as a “mass casualty” event.
“One guy was cut in half. There’s blood everywhere,” Dr. Gerald Lent of Reno told The Reno Gazette-Journal. “One guy just said, ‘Hey, there’s another foot over there.”‘
A National Transportation Safety Board team was dispatched from Washington, D.C., to launch an investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration, which announced the air races would be canceled for the remainder of the weekend
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said multiple agency inspectors were on hand for the races and were present during the accident, which occurred at about 4:20 p.m. The aircraft did not catch fire, he said.
There were no immediate signs that a medical problem prompted the accident, though Houghton said NTSB officials would look at all possibilities.
Leeward, a pilot since the age of 14, had a current medical certificate and license, Houghton said.
His former World War II fighter plane, bought about 25 years ago and recently renovated, had initially flown in the Cleveland air races in the 1940s. Leeland had been flying in racing competitions since the 1970s, and had piloted a P-51 as a stunt pilot in the films “Tuskegee Airmen,” “Dragonfly,” “Amelia” and “Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.”
The plane’s renovations were completed in 2009, and Leeward debuted the aircraft at Reno in 2010.
Gov. Sandoval praised the quick response from emergency workers, many of whom were already on hand because of the dangerous nature of the race, though many more — including about 100 spectators who had medical training — had to rush in to help.
“Today was a flawless reaction to what happened. The fire personnel, the air race personnel, the law enforcement, everybody from the county and local level came together and did everything they needed to do,” he said.
Coming on the heels of a shooting rampage at an IHOP restaurant in Carson City on Sept. 6, in which a mentally troubled man killed three National Guard members eating breakfast, an elderly woman and himself, the latest incident is particularly difficult, the governor said.
“We’ve had two incredible tragedies in the last two weeks,” he said. “We have a lot of heroes standing here with us.”