'No chance to get out of the way' of plane in Reno air crash
The president of the National Championship Air Races in Reno -- where a pilot crashed into the stands Friday afternoon, killing at least two and injuring more than 50 -- speculated that the plane experienced mechanical failure in the moments before it plunged into the crowd.
"There appeared to be an air flight problem ... that caused it to go out of control," said Mike Houghton. He added that the National Transportation Safety Board had taken over the investigation and would determine a cause but that the pilot, 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward, was "an experienced, talented and qualified pilot."
Witnesses, including an aircraft engineer and a private pilot, said they thought the plane had lost power, or that perhaps Leeward had suffered a heart attack.
“When it hit, I knew there were going to be fatalities," said John Katseanes, 51, of Elko, a private pilot who was standing about 100 feet away. "It didn’t appear to slow down at all. It was going 400 mph. ... It happened so fast. The people had no chance to get out of the way."
As debris flew, he said, he and others in the crowd ducked to avoid it.
David Wilson of Victoria, Australia, on KTVN-TV Channel 2, who videotaped the crash from 25 yards away and who is also an aircraft engineer, speculated that the aircraft had a power or flight control problem, or the pilot had a heart attack.
The plane, named the Galloping Ghost, had an illustrious history, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. The Galloping Ghost won at the Cleveland Air Races in the late 1940s, the newspaper said, and won at the Reno National Championship Air Races while the aircraft had different names.
The newspaper reported that Leeward bought the plane in 1982, put it in storage in 1989, and then two decades later decided to pull it out of retirement and restore it. It flew for the first time since its retirement at last year’s races in Reno.
The plane was classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a P-51D Mustang, a fixed wing single-engine aircraft manufactured in 1946. The airworthiness was classified as that of an experiment racing aircraft.
Early Friday, the pilot’s son, Chad Leeward -- who is also a pilot -- tweeted that he was "headed out to the National Championship Air Races in Reno to watch my father race at over 500 mph.”
-- Ron Lin, Ricardo Lopez and Jessica Garrison
Photo: A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown before crashing at the Reno air races on Friday. The plane plunged into the stands in what an official described as a "mass casualty situation." Credit: Tim O'Brien / Grass Valley Union