Devastating Crash Closes Reno Air Show

Sep 17, 2011
Originally published on September 17, 2011 8:52 am

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. At least three people died, and more than 50 were injured, at an air show in Nevada late yesterday afternoon. A plane participating in the Reno Air Races crashed into a group of spectators, and the scene was horrific. From Reno Public Radio, Brandon Rittiman reports.

BRANDON RITTIMAN: It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, at an airfield north of Reno. The stands were packed for the annual Reno Air Races. On one of the laps, a modified World War II-era plane, a P-51 Mustang, suddenly shot up and then down - right into the crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, God. Look out, look out, look out! Oh, God.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMS AND SHOUTS)

RITTIMAN: This sound comes from a video of the crash posted to YouTube shortly after it happened. The plane slammed right into the VIP seating area, sending flying debris into the crowd. It hit just feet away from the main grandstands. Jim Harker, a pilot himself, saw the crash. He says it looked like the pilot made a last-ditch effort to miss the bleachers.

JIM HARKER: He was trying to get forward so, you know, to miss the stands. Otherwise, when we initially saw it, you know, a straight lane right into the grandstand.

RITTIMAN: The pilot who died was 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward of Florida. He'd been flying in the races since the 1970s. Crashes at the Reno Air Races aren't uncommon. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board has three staffers at the event as a standard practice. But organizers say this is the first accident involving spectators.

Air Race President Mike Houghton says he believes the crash was due to a technical problem.

MIKE HOUGHTON: There appeared to be some - a problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control. And we all know what the end result was on that.

RITTIMAN: Organizers canceled the rest of this year's race. The crash packed Reno-area emergency rooms with patients, and had first responders scrambling. Hospitals had to fly in supplies of blood from other cities to help victims. Friday's tragedy brings renewed controversy to the air races. Planes make tight turns low to the ground, at more than 400 miles an hour. Several times during a late-night press conference, Houghton responded to questions about whether the event should end permanently.

HOUGHTON: That's way too far in advance for us to look at.

RITTIMAN: Doing away with the event would prove tricky. It generates tens of millions of dollars for the local economy each year. U.S. Senator Dean Heller, of Nevada, doesn't want to do away with the races. But he says he wants it to be safer.

SIMON: The pilots themselves know the risk that they're taking. But what the safety and the concern should be is for the general public that come out to watch these races. That should be priority number one.

RITTIMAN: Planes fly some distance from the crowd already; this one just veered off course. Tens of thousands of people witnessed the crash, including other race participants. Fredrick Telling had flown alongside the pilot Jimmy Leeward for 15 years. He could only look on helplessly from the ground as the plane dove into the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY SIGH)

FREDERICK TELLING: It's hard to imagine. All I remember saying was oh God, Jimmy.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY SIGH)

FREDRICK TELLING: He was a great individual.

RITTIMAN: Telling says pilots are mentally prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and he believes his friend did what he could to avoid the loss of even more lives. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the crash. It could be months before there's a final report. For NPR News, I'm Brandon Rittiman in Reno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.