September 23, 2011 / 5:55 PM / 6 years ago

NTSB says airframe failure may have caused Reno crash

(Reuters) - Investigators probing last week’s deadly crash of a World War Two-era plane at a Nevada air race are looking at the possibility a piece of the aircraft fell off shortly before it plowed into spectators, a preliminary report showed on Friday.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is trying to determine what caused 74-year-old pilot Jimmy Leeward to lose control of his vintage P-51 Mustang and slam into a box seat area in front of the grandstand, said there were indications a piece of the modified fighter plane fell off as Leeward turned and headed toward the grandstand.

“The airplane had completed several laps and was in a steep left turn toward the home pylon when, according to photographic evidence, the airplane suddenly banked momentarily to the left before banking to the right, turning away from the race course, and pitching to a steep nose-high attitude,” the NTSB said.

“Witnesses reported and photographic evidence indicates that a piece of the airframe separated during these maneuvers.”

Eleven people, including Leeward, were killed in the accident and another 66 were seriously injured, including eight who remain in the hospital, some in critical condition.

The accident happened last Friday during the 48th annual Reno National Championship Air Races.

The NTSB cautioned that its investigation was still in the preliminary stages and that any conclusions about the cause of the crash would have to wait until its final report was complete.

The agency said it was also examining data from a telemetry system and camera that were on board the doomed aircraft for additional clues. Both the camera and a data box sustained damage in the crash.

Leeward was a Florida-based real estate developer who was well-known in air racing circles and had flown as a stunt pilot in movies.

The accident took place a day before another vintage plane crashed in a fireball during an aerobatic demonstration at a West Virginia air show, killing the pilot. The two incidents have raised new questions about the safety of such events.

A total of 30 people have been killed in the Reno Air Races since they began in 1964, though Reno Mayor Bob Cashell has said that this year marked the first spectator deaths.

Leeward had modified his plane, which was built during World War Two and dubbed “The Galloping Ghost” after a nickname for Chicago Bears running back Red Grange, to make it faster.

The city of Reno has scheduled a memorial service for 6 p.m. on Sunday and will plant plant a tree for the victims of the crash.

Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston

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