RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - Federal investigators on Saturday tried to determine what caused a vintage World War II fighter plane dubbed the “The Galloping Ghost” to crash at a Nevada air race, killing nine people and raising questions about the safety of such events.
The investigation began on the same day that a World War II-era plane crashed in a fireball at a Martinsburg, West Virginia air show, killing the pilot.
In Nevada, more than 50 people were injured in the crash on Friday afternoon.
Seven people died on the tarmac of Reno Stead Airport when pilot Jimmy Leeward slammed his modified P-51 Mustang into a box seat area in front of the grandstand, Reno Deputy Police Chief Dave Evans said.
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.
“The aircraft was operating at low altitude and high speed, pitched up, climbed briefly, nosed over quickly, and impacted the ground at high speed,” National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind said at a press briefing.
“It was like a war zone where the box seats were,” said Mike Draper, spokesman for the 48th Annual National Championship Air Races, also known as the Reno Air Races.
Other witnesses described dead and injured spectators lying on the ground around the crash site.
Rosekind said investigators would review video and photos of the crash, including a picture snapped by a spectator that appears to show part of the tail section falling off.
Leeward, who bought the plane in 1983, described the modifications he made to the plane in a May interview for Sport Aviation magazine. He said he had trimmed the wings 10 feet shorter than stock, among other things.
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.”
The plane was built in 1946 and named after Chicago Bears running back Red Grange, who was nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost.”
The Reno and West Virginia crashes are 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 onlookers at a weekend air show in Kansas City. In Michigan last month a wingwalker at an air show near Detroit plunged about 200 feet to his death as he tried to climb onto a helicopter in midair.
The accidents have prompted some to call for a review of safety at such events.
“What was a 74-year-old pilot doing in a souped-up World War II fighter flying in an air race? The tragedy in Reno is a ghastly reminder that the normal rules of public safety are suspended when air shows are involved,” Clive Irving, Conde Nast Traveler senior consulting editor, wrote in a column on the Daily Beast website.
“An airplane flying at more than 400 mph at low altitude is potentially a bomb,” Irving wrote. “It takes only the slightest hiccup in an engine, structural failure, pilot error or blackout to create a situation like the one at Reno.”
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.”
Draper 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.
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.”
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Mary Slosson and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst