3 dead, more than 50 hurt at Nev. air race

A P-51 Mustang airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at the Reno Air show on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Reno, Nevada. The World War II-era fighter plane flown by a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward plunged Friday into the grandstands during the popular air race creating a horrific scene strewn with smoking debris.
AP Photo/Ward Howes

Last Updated 8:01 a.m. ET

RENO, Nev. — At least three people are dead and more than 50 injured when a pilot lost control of a vintage World War II-era plane and crashed at an air show in Reno.

Twelve people are in critical condition, and the death toll is expected to rise, says CBS News correspondent Karen Brown.

Witnesses describe the scene as absolute carnage, reports Brown.

Thousands of fans come every year to the Reno Air Race to get the thrill of the event - like NASCAR on steroids, with planes going more than 500 miles per hour. But yesterday, thousands watched in horror when a P-51 Mustang pitched upward, rolled and plunged nose-first into the edge of the crowd of spectators.

"Boom! Right into the grandstands," said photographer Jerry Maxwell. "I couldn't believe it."

The plane, flown by a 74-year-old veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, then slammed into the concrete in a section of VIP box seats and blew to pieces in front the pilot's family and a tight-knit group of friends who attend the annual event in Reno.

Veteran airman Jimmy Leeward among dead in Reno

"It absolutely disintegrated," said Tim O'Brien of Grass Valley Calif., who attends the races every year. "I've never seen anything like that before."

Dozens of victims lay on the tarmac. The most critically injured, were airlifted to nearby hospitals, carried on stretchers. Others, clearly wounded, walked into emergency rooms.

Authorities say it appears a mechanical failure with the P-51 Mustang — a class of fighter plane that can fly in excess of 500 mph — was to blame. Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly.

"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section," said Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, who watched the race with his two daughters.

"The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac," said Johnny Norman, who was at the show.

Left in its wake were bloodied bodies spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene. Video of the aftermath shows a man with his leg severed at the knee.

Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told The Associated Press that emergency crews took a total of 56 injury victims to three hospitals. She said they also observed a number of people being transported by private vehicle, and those people were not included in the count.

Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 were considered in critical condition, 13 were serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious or non-life threatening.

"This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades," Kruse told The Associated Press. "The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it."

Gov. Brian Sandoval noted at a news conference that area hospitals were in need of blood in the wake of the crash, and he encouraged people to donate.

Stunned air show organizers say they have no idea how it all went so horribly wrong.

"The plane was flying its normal course," said Mike Houghton, CEO of Reno Air Races. "There appeared to be a problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control, and we know what happened there."

The pilot was 74 year old Jimmy Leeward, of Ocala, Fla., a veteran racer and Hollywood stuntman. He died on impact.

Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including "Amelia" and "Cloud Dancer."

Leeward named his P-51 Mustang fighter plane the "Galloping Ghost," according to Houghton said.

The Reno Air Races were supposed to go through the weekend. They're now cancelled, as the NTSB will sift through the splintered field of debris, hoping to piece together how this happened.

This is not the first deadly crash to take place at this annual aviation event, reports Brown. The National Championship Air Races have been deadly before. Two pilots died at the event in 1994. And organizers softened two of the curves pilots negotiate after two more pilots crashed into nearby neighborhoods in 1998 and 1999.

In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting local school officials to consider barring student field trips to the event.