Federal investigators trying to determine why a World War II-era fighter crashed at a Nevada air race, killing nine people, said they would focus in part on the plane’s tail assembly.
A photograph of the modified P-51 Mustang in the seconds before it slammed into an airfield at the 48th Annual National Air Championship Races on Friday afternoon appears to show a component of the plane’s tail section falling off.
“We have seen the photos and the video and clearly that is one aspect of this that will be investigated intensely,” National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosenkind said at a press briefing, Reuters reports.
“Clearly that is a focussed area for us to look at,” Rosenkind said, adding that parts of the tail section had been recovered from the crash site, which left a 3-foot deep crater on the tarmac of Reno Stead Airport.
Seven people were killed at the site when pilot Jimmy Leeward slammed the sleek silver fighter plane, which was dubbed “The Galloping Ghost” in the 1940s, into a box seat area in front of the grandstand.
Leeward, a 74-year-old real estate developer who was well known in air racing circles and had worked as a stunt pilot in movies, was among the dead.
A total of 54 other people were transported to area hospitals, where two died of their injuries, Evans said.
Astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had been scheduled to fly in a P-51 Mustang in the Reno air show on Saturday, a Giffords spokesman said.
Kelly was in Reno the day of the deadly accident, but Giffords spokesman Mark Kindle said he was going back to Houston after the plane crash resulted in the cancellation of the races, originally scheduled to run through the weekend.
Giffords was shot in the head during a meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona in January in an attack by a gunman that killed six people.
The NTSB investigation in Nevada began on the same day that a vintage plane crashed in a fireball at a Martinsburg, West Virginia air show, killing the pilot.
NTSB TO PROBE RACE SAFETY
The incidents raised questions about the safety of air shows and races, and Rosenkind said investigators would evaluate the Reno Air Races to see if proper safety protocols were followed.
On August 20, the pilot of an aerobatic airplane died in a fiery crash in front of onlookers at a weekend air show in Kansas City. The following day a wingwalker fell to his death at an air show near Detroit as he tried to climb onto a helicopter in midair.
But proximity to the planes is clearly a draw for the annual Reno race, which advises on its website, “Always remember to fly low, fly fast and turn left.”
Mike Draper, a spokesman for the races, said the planes sometimes fly at high speeds “about 50 feet off the ground and it’s an exciting, exciting sight.”
The thrill has been a deadly one on occasion, with the nine deaths on Friday marking 28 people killed in the history of the race, flown every year in Reno since 1964, Draper confirmed.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell told reporters this year marked the first time that spectators had been killed, saying that past fatalities had been limited to pilots.
In an interview for the May issue of Sport Aviation magazine Leeward, who bought the plane in 1983, described the modifications he made to the fighter, saying he had trimmed the wings by 10 feet, among other things.
The magazine said it was built during World War II and named after Chicago Bears running back Red Grange, who went by the nickname “The Galloping Ghost.”
Asked by the magazine how fast his plane could go, he said: “There are some things you never tell the competition and that’s one of them. But it’s fast. Really fast.”
A website for Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team features pictures of “The Galloping Ghost” and says such planes can race at more than 500 miles per hour.
“These (pilots) are always on the edge knowing one wrong move, in one split second, could mean the end,” the site says.
By Saturday afternoon, makeshift memorials had sprung up at the airfield north of Reno, including flowers and tiny white, wooden crosses memorializing the dead.
A wooden sign leaning against a fence read: “To the men, women, and children who lost their lives on 16 September 2011 you’re in God’s hands now. Rest in peace. galloping ghost #177 clear for take off … fly to the angels.”