NTSB probes plane's tail in U.S. air race crash

RENO, Nevada Mon Sep 19, 2011 4:20am EDT

RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - Federal investigators trying to determine why a World War II-era fighter crashed at a Nevada air race, killing nine people, said on Saturday they would focus 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 briefing.

He said 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, 74, a 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 hospitals, where two died of their injuries, Evans said.

In Martinsburg, West Virginia, another vintage U.S. military plane went down in a fireball at an air show on Saturday, killing the pilot. There were no other casualties.

In the Reno crash, two people who died of injuries at hospitals and seven died on the tarmac following the Friday night crash, Reno Deputy Police Chief Dave Evans said. More than 50 people were injured. Officials said previously the crash killed at least three people.

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.

Proximity to the planes is a draw for the Reno race, which advises on its website, "Always remember to fly low, fly fast and turn left."

Race spokesman Mike Draper said the planes sometimes fly at high speeds "about 50 feet (15 metres) off the ground and it's an exciting, exciting sight."

The thrill has been a deadly one on occasion, with a total of 28 people killed in the history of the race flown every year in Reno since 1964, Draper said.

The NTSB also was investigating the Martinsburg crash, which came as six T-28 aircraft were flying in formation at the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Open House & Air Show. A witness said one of the planes dropped and then rolled onto its side before crashing.

The T-28 was used as a trainer by the Navy and Air Force between 1950 and 1984.

The Reno and Martinsburg crashes were the latest in a spate of fatal air show accidents since August.

Last month, the pilot of an aerobatic airplane died in a fiery crash in front of shocked onlookers at a weekend air show in Kansas City, Missouri. In Michigan last month, a wingwalker at an air show near Detroit plunged about 200 feet (60 metres) to his death as he tried to climb onto a helicopter in midair.

(Reporting by Steven Allen Adams, Dan Whitcomb, Barbara Goldberg and Ben Miller; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bill Trott)