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Early report: Reno air-show crash kills 3, injures 56

People gather at the scene where a Second World War fighter plane crashed into the stands at the Reno Air Races. Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, in Stead, Nev. Witnesses said the plane spiraled suddenly out of control and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Reno Air Races president and CEO Mike Houghton says that among the dead is pilot Jimmy Leeward, 80, of Ocala, Fla.

September 16, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
An air-show crash in Reno killed at least three people, including the pilot, and injured 56 Friday afternoon. Twenty-five of those injured were critically wounded, and 25 were seriously injured.

Spectators described the scene as horrific; the plane crashing into box seats at the National Championship Air Races at Reno-Stead Airport.

The Florida pilot, Jimmy Leeward, was a veteran Hollywood stuntman pilot. The 74-year-old's vintage WWII plane spiraled out of control just before 4:30 p.m. and disintegrated in the crash.

"I saw this plane go straight into the ground, right into the grand stands," said one witness. "And it was just unbelievable. There was no fire, there was no explosion. It was like asphalt and dust, and parts, and things flying through the air."

Leeward was flying his P-51 Mustang, the Galloping Ghost, when something went terribly wrong.

"The plane just turned hard," said another witness. "And when it was coming down you could tell he must have been pulling really hard on the stick to try to get it as far away from the stands as possible."

The number of dead varied as details emerged Friday evening- as many as 12 were initially thought killed and 75 seriously injured.

Multiple FAA inspectors were observing the air race at the time of the crash, according to the FAA. They said that there were no flames on impact. But the debris field was widespread.

"We are all devastated by what this tragedy," said Mike Houghton from Reno Air Racing Association. "We are doing everything we can to move along, and communicate and work with folks that are directly and adversely affected by this."

Meanwhile, the Leeward family issued a statement: "We are deeply saddened by the tragedy. Please join us in praying for all those involved."

The cause of the crash is still under investigation. An air show official thinks there are indications that point to mechanical problems.