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Video: Plane in Reno crash was modified for speed

  1. Closed captioning of: Plane in Reno crash was modified for speed

    >> now the big story from this weekend. the awful scene in reno, nevada. if you have been to an air show you can imagine the horror in the crowd when this modified world war ii era plane, a p-51, plunged to the ground near where people were sitting. we have exclusive new pictures. fair warning they show the moment of impact, exactly what investigators are now zeroing in on. our report from nbc's george lewis .

    >> reporter: this video provides the closest view yet of the p-51 mustang, a world war ii fighter slamming into the ground. [ screaming ]

    >> reporter: ben cecil in the bleachers with his family shot the video.

    >> to be honest it's hard for me to talk about. there was about one to one and a half seconds he was pointed right at us. i started to flinch and then he pulled up and misses the bleachers.

    >> reporter: the video and earlier released still photos show part of the tail section called a trim tab missing. investigators from the ntsb found it over the weekend. the plane also carried a video camera and flight data recorder . the information stored on memory cards like this one. investigators think they have recovered some of the cards and they are hoping to find useful data. the plane was heavily modified for racing, the wings clipped and the engine souped up for speed. the pilot, 74-year-old jimmy leeward.

    >> i know the speed. i know it will do the speed. the systems aren't proven yet. we think they're going to be okay.

    >> reporter: were they okay? that's one question investigators will try to answer. in the chaos that followed the crash, volunteers rushed in to help. some fuelled up an old huey helicopter on display and flew victims to the hospital.

    >> it was an experience that i don't wish upon anybody. you know what i mean ? i don't wish anybody to ever go through that.

    >> reporter: the ntsb is expected to issue safety recommendations for preventing future tragedies like this one.

Image: Plane just before impact
Garret Woodson  /  AP
A P-51 Mustang airplane approaches the ground right before crashing Friday during an air show in Reno, Nev. The vintage World War II-era fighter plane piloted by Jimmy Leeward, plunged into the grandstands during the popular annual air show.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/19/2011 12:33:55 PM ET 2011-09-19T16:33:55

The World War II-era plane that plummeted into an air-race crowd like a missile bore little resemblance to its original self. It was rebuilt for speed, if not for stability.

The 65-year-old "Galloping Ghost" underwent years of massive overhauls that took a full 10 feet off its wingspan. The ailerons — the back edges of the main wings used to control balance — were cut from about 60 inches to 32.

Pilot Jimmy Leeward had said the changes made the P-51 Mustang faster and more maneuverable, but in the months before Friday's crash even he wasn't certain exactly how it would perform.

Story: Probe into deadly Nev crash focuses on wayward part
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"I know it'll do the speed," he said in a podcast uploaded to YouTube in June. "The systems aren't proven yet. We think they're going to be OK."

On Monday, the death toll from the crash rose to 10, a figure that includes Leeward.

Investigators don't yet know what caused the plane to pitch sharply into the crowd at the National Championship Air Races in Reno. They have focused on the "elevator trim tab" — a piece of the tail that helps the aircraft maintain lift and appeared to break off before the crash. While investigators did not identify the items, the National Transportation Safety Board released a photo late Sunday of two board officials at the crash site with items they said were part of the investigation.

Over the coming days, the NTSB will likely study footage that came from the Galloping Ghost's onboard, outward facing camera. The camera tracked the plane's engine, position and other data, and transmitted it to the racing team on the ground, the Los Angeles Times reported. Memory cards that may have come from the plane were also found at the scene.

'The Big League'
In the highly competitive, bravado-filled world of air racing, pilots go for broke on the ground and in the sky, hitting speeds of 500 mph. Leeward is the 20th pilot to die at the air races since they began 47 years ago, but Friday's crash was the first in which spectators were killed.

Video: New video surfaces of deadly air show (on this page) "Pilots are a special breed of confident, intelligent, driven perfectionists," said Ken Quick, a commercial airline pilot and a crew member for one of the teams that raced Friday. "They know what they do is dangerous and demanding, and they eagerly embrace both."

Leeward's own website alludes to the dangers — and bragging rights.

"These guys are always on the edge knowing one wrong move, in one split second, could mean the end," the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team website says. "NASCAR at 200 mph? Indy at 230 mph? Top Fuel at 300 mph? Mere Childs play. Welcome to the Big League."

Leeward had said the plane underwent several years of modifications before Friday's race, including lopping five feet off each wing, but he hadn't revealed many of the specifics. In the podcast, he called some of the changes "extremely radical," compared some to systems on the space shuttle and explained that he had increased the plane's speed capabilities to be more like those of a modern fighter jet.

"To control the airplane in the wind, and in different circumstances if anything happens, you need those types of speeds. You need jet speeds," he said.

Leeward was rounding a bend at dizzying speeds Friday when his plane took an oddly upward pitch, narrowly missing the packed grandstand. It then twirled just a few hundred feet off the ground and nose-dived into a section of VIP box seats, blasting out a 3-foot-deep, 8-foot-wide crater in a hail of metal, chairs and body parts.

Like 'sprinkled Legos'
Noah Joraanstad was blown off his feet as he tried to run away. Shrapnel hit his back, and he was covered in aviation fuel that burned his skin as spectators tried to wash it off.

From his bed Sunday at Northern Nevada Medical Center, where nine stitches were put in his head, Joraanstad said that when he looked back at the wreck, the plane was just gone.

"The biggest pieces I could see, it looked like just someone sprinkled Legos in every direction," said the 25-year-old, a commercial pilot from Alaska.

Officials said 69 people were treated at hospitals, including 36 who have been released. Six remained in critical condition Sunday.

Four of the spectators killed have been identified so far: George Hewitt, 60, and Wendy Hewitt, 57, a married couple from Fort Mojave, Ariz.; Greg Morcom of Washington state; and Michael Wogan, 22, of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Slideshow: Plane crashes at Reno air races (on this page)

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said officials thoroughly vet all aircraft modifications before the planes are allowed to race. Reno Air Race Association technical experts also examine them to ensure they are air-worthy.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said his agency would look into the oversight of modifications to Leeward's plane as part of its investigation.

"We're not saying they did something right or wrong in this accident," Williams said. "We look at all angles in every accident investigation we do."

'No time to correct'
Pilot Ray Sherwood of Placerville, Calif., who raced at Reno from 1986 to 2005, said he's convinced that the crash was caused by modifications leading the trim tab to snap off. He said the same problem caused a modified P-51 Mustang to plunge into a neighborhood during the races in 1999, killing veteran pilot Gary Levitz.

Aircraft experts said losing the part could have forced Leeward to yank the plane up too fast, possibly overcorrecting and stalling, meaning the engines would be running but air breaks up over the wings, causing it to lose lift. He probably would have been able to pull out of it safely if he hadn't been at low altitude, they said.

"Assuming the aircraft had no other problems, and assuming the pilot had no problems, if he had enough altitude, you can easily get out of that no big deal ... Matter of fact, the P-51 was designed for that," said Ken Liano, a structural engineer and aircraft consultant. "But that's one of the problems with low-altitude flying: There's no time to correct."

Pilots modify their old P-51s to compete, but the alterations put additional stress on the aircraft, Sherwood said.

"If they are going to go as fast as they can, they have to modify the plane," he said.

Pilots were competing for a total of about $1 million in prize money, but Sherwood said the sport is really about the thrill. He said a P-51 like Leeward's would cost about $2.5 million.

"You can't make any money racing airplanes. It's too expensive to buy and maintain them," Sherwood said. "You do it for the love of the sport."

Video: Reno crash witness: 'Plane was headed right for us'

Leeward, 74, was a veteran racer who flew in more than 120 events and served as a Hollywood stunt pilot for movies including "Amelia" and "The Tuskegee Airmen." He has been described as a passionate pilot, a stickler for safety and an aggressive competitor.

In the June podcast, he chided a competitor to come take him on.

"I've got a standing $10,000 offer ... if he would come back, get in the airplane and fly it in the race. I'll pay him $10,000 cash on the table before he takes off just to get him in that race because when I beat that airplane, I want him in that seat," Leeward said.

Leeward's plane had a minor crash at the air races almost exactly 41 years ago. According to two websites that track P-51s that are still flying, it made a belly landing away from the Reno airport. The NTSB report on the Sept. 18, 1970, incident says the engine failed and the plane crash-landed short of the runway.

The future of the races is unclear. Joraanstad, the injured spectator, said he doesn't want to see the races end "but when you see people go through that much pain and people die, I don't know if it's worth it.

"It's just kind of that last edge — frontier of flying — where there's no limits, really, with the amount of power you can put in your plane," he added. "It's kind of the ultimate rush just to even watch these guys do what they do."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Reno air race crash

Photos: Reno air race crash

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  1. In this combined image, a P-51 Mustang airplane flies upside down and then nosedives right before crashing at the Reno air race on Friday, Sept. 16, in Reno, Nev. The plane plunged into the stands in what one official described as a "mass casualty situation." At least 10 people, including the pilot, were killed and dozens injured in the violent crash. (Tim O'Brien / Grass Valley Union via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The World War II-era fighter plane nose-dives just over the crowd, moments before impact at the Reno National Championship Air Races. (Courtesy Garret Woodman) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands during the popular air race creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris. (Ward Howes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The plane breaks up upon impact, scattering debris into the crowd on the tarmac. (Ward Howes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A crowd gathers around debris after the crash while ambulances and emergency personnel rush to the scene. (Tim O'Brien / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Medics help injured bystanders out of a helicopter into Renown Medical Center following the plane crash. (Liz Margerum / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Debris from the plane is scattered at the Stead airport. (Andy Barron / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Bystanders embrace after watching the horror unfold. Witnesses said the plane spiraled suddenly out of control and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. (Cathleen Allison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Long-time Reno Air Race pilot Jimmy Leeward with his P51 Mustang on Sept. 15, 2010. The plane that crashed into a box seat area at the front of the grandstand was piloted by Leeward who was killed in the crash. (Marilyn Newton / The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Two NTSB officials look at wreckage from Jimmy Leeward's plane, Sunday, Sept. 18. Officials say ten people died. (/National Traffic Safety Board via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Patient Ed Larson gestures during a new conference at a hospital in Reno, Nev., Sunday, Sept. 18 about the how the plane crash happened in front of him. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A model plane lies among candles at a memorial near the entrance of an airport in Reno, Nev., Monday, Sept. 19, where the Reno Air Races were held. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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