An air race turned deadly in Reno, Nev. Friday when a plane nosedived into the stands, killing spectators and the pilot.
(UPDATED: 4:15 p.m.) The Reno Air Race is one of nation’s few remaining air shows. Thousands of spectators flock to the Nevada desert each year to watch the races where planes can fly in excess of 500 mph.
The Unlimited race event had just kicked off, with flyers on their third lap out of six. The “Galloping Ghost”, flown by veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward, was in third place when it unexpectedly plunged into the grandstands.
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The crash happened just after 4 p.m. Friday. Witnesses report a chaotic and bloody mess when the plane nosedived into the VIP box seats. One spectator said the plane “absolutely disintegrated” as pieces of the downed plane were thrown into the air, striking a number of onlookers.
Authorities originally said 3 were dead including Leeward, but that toll was upped to 9 Saturday afternoon at a briefing by federal investigators. They reported that seven people died on the tarmac and two spectators died later at local hospitals. Of the 56 people brought to the hospital, 15 were said to have critical injuries.
Leeward was a 74-year-old veteran Hollywood stunt pilot who had a fondness for the plane he named “Galloping Ghost,” a P-51 Mustang Fighter plane from the World War II era. Friends told the Associated Press that Leeward was a “very qualified, very experienced pilot” at the helm of the P-51, with no medical issues to speak of. Reno Air Races president Mike Houghton, a good friend of the pilot, noted Leeward “would have done all he possibly could” to avoid a crash.
But the Reno Air Races is no stranger to tragedy. Over the event’s 44-year history, there have been 19 deaths reported, either while flying or during practice runs, according to KTVN News.
The exact cause of the crash is still under investigation. Federal investigators will look into the incident Saturday, and officials have canceled the Air Show’s remaining events.