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Reno air races crash: Probe could take up to a year

September 17, 2011 |  3:03 pm

A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno air races Friday afternoon.

The death toll in the Reno air crash climbed to nine, officials said Saturday, as the probe began into what turned a festive day of vintage-aircraft racing into a scene of deadly horror.

Speaking at an afternoon news conference, Reno Deputy Police Chief Dave Evans said seven people, including pilot Jimmy Leeward, were killed on the tarmac and two others were pronounced dead when they arrived at area hospitals. On Friday, the toll stood at three killed when Leeward’s P-51 crashed into the tarmac, shooting debris into the stands.

Photos: Reno air race crash

The additional deaths were announced at a briefing by the National Transportation Safety Board, which began its investigation into the incident that shook the air racing world. It was the first time any spectator had been killed since the races began almost half a century ago, though 20 pilots have lost their lives.

A day after Leeward, an experienced 74-year-old stunt pilot and racer, fell from the sky in his World War II-era plane, the Reno-Stead airport remained closed to allow investigators to begin their grim work.

Dirt lots, which just a day earlier had been crowded with fans for the National Championship Air Races, stood empty. The few people who remained were packing recreational vehicles or dismantling food stands — and had the expressions of those trying to understand a tragedy that had so far claimed nine lives and injured about 56 people.

It was too soon to know what caused the crash, which will be investigated by the NTSB, a process that could take months or even as long as a year, NTSB board member Mark Rosekind told reporters. Three NTSB investigators were at the races, a routine practice, while the rest of the team arrived Saturday morning.

Full coverage: Deadly crash at Reno air show

“This is just the beginning,” Rosekind said. The investigation is “not just about that piece of metal” and determining the cause of the crash; it also seeks to make safety and oversight recommendations so that it never happens again, he said.

Officials isolated the accident site and walked through the wreckage, while police and highway patrol officers mapped the scene and crews swept the runway to prepare it to resume operations. Speculation focused on a mechanical problem rather than an error by Leeward, a popular racer. Leeward’s family had initially planned a memorial service Saturday afternoon but that was canceled, though the Reno Air Racing Assn. said in a statement that a memorial is being planned for the near future.

David Wilson, an aircraft engineer for Virgin Australia, said he was standing 25 yards from where Leeward crashed and filmed the last moments.

He said photographs showed the elevator trim tab coming loose. “That would certainly explain what happened. That would create a huge problem at that speed. It controls the up and down motion of the nose. It’s a flight control at the rear of the aircraft. A very important feature as concerns loss of control. That would do it,” he said.

The NTSB is looking at what role, if any, was played by the tab, which appeared to be missing in photographs and video of the aircraft taken Friday.

“We're aware of that, and a component has been recovered in the area where that was observed,”   Rosekind told reporters.

The annual air race is a major tourist draw, and evidence of its importance is everywhere in the area. At least two blinking signs on Highway 395 direct air race traffic. The main street, Stead Boulevard, is lined with “Welcome Race Fans” banners. Similar banners also adorn bars and eateries around the complex of utilitarian buildings and rows of hangars at the airfield.

Reno Fire Capt. Dennis Jacobsen said on Saturday that he saw the crash from a tower overlooking the airfield. He was working fire command when the plane slammed into the ground during the first lap of one of the races in the sky.

The pilot, he said, “went high like he was going to pull off the course, then winged over and straight down, all in about three or four seconds.”

The P-51 Mustang known as the “Galloping Ghost” and flown by Leeward slammed into the tarmac in front of VIP box seats, seeming to explode into pieces that rained on spectators, pilots’ families and  dignitaries. Some witnesses praised Leeward for being able to guide his craft to the tarmac rather than letting it plunge into the stands where the death toll would have been much higher.

First responders said they transported 56 patients to hospitals within 62 minutes, one by helicopter, emergency medical officials said in interviews on Saturday.

A team of about two dozen emergency response workers were on standby at the event Friday, said Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority, which coordinates emergency medical response for the region.

The standby team at the airfield at the time of the crash included four ambulances, four nurses, an emergency doctor and four paramedics on all-terrain vehicles to allow quick access to accident sites.

“They were down on the scene within seconds,” Kruse said. “That's why we believe that triage and transport went so quickly.” More than a dozen additional ambulances rushed to the scene when it was declared a “mass casualty incident” at 4:26 p.m., she said.

In May, emergency crews conducted a full-scale drill of their response to a plane crashing into the grandstands; that drill was called Broken Wing, said Kevin Romero, EMS director for the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority.

“We train pretty significantly for exactly what happened yesterday,” Romero said. “We were able to transport almost a patient a minute.”

Of those injured, about half were initially listed in serious or critical condition.

Renown Regional Medical Center, the region’s main trauma facility, discharged 14 of the 30 patients who were admitted Friday night. Of those who remained hospitalized, according to Renown’s website, six were in critical condition, two were listed as serious, five as fair and one as good.

The air races draw thousands of people to Reno every September, and the Federal Aviation Administration and air race organizers spend months preparing, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said on Saturday.

The FAA and the Reno Air Race Assn. vet all pilots and aircraft before they are allowed to perform, he said. In addition, the association’s technical experts examine all aircraft to ensure they are properly qualified and airworthy, and FAA inspectors review records to ensure these inspections have been done, Gregor said.

The approval issued for this year’s race was the same as the approvals the FAA has issued in the past, he said.


Reno air races had history of safety issues, troubles

 Reno air races have claimed 19 other pilots since 1972

'No chance to get out of the way' of plane in Reno air crash

-- Tony Barboza in Reno and Michael Muskal in Los Angeles. Times staff writers Julie Cart and Stephen Ceasar in Los Angeles, and Maria LaGanga and Ashley Powers in Reno contributed to this report.

Photo: A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno air races on Friday. Credit: Ward Howes / Associated Press