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Family sues for $25M in Reno air race crash death

The P-51 Mustang airplane moments before crashing.
AP Photo/Garret Woodson

LAS VEGAS - The family of a Texas man killed when a racing aircraft crashed into spectators in the National Championship Air Races in Reno filed a $25 million lawsuit Tuesday against the pilot's family, a mechanic on the World War II-era aircraft and the Nevada organization that hosted the event.

The lawsuit filed in Collin County, Texas, is believed to be the first stemming from the Sept. 16 crash of pilot Jimmy Leeward's P-51D Mustang during air races at Reno-Stead Airport. Eleven people died, including Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla. At least 74 were hurt.

"Some people say this was an accident," said Houston-based attorney Tony Buzbee, who filed the civil liability lawsuit on behalf of Dr. Sezen Altug, a physician and widow of dead spectator Craig Salerno, and their two children, ages 6 and 8. "But it seems to me the formula that they created made an accident inevitable."

Leeward's son, Kent Leeward, declined comment on the lawsuit, which names Texas-based mechanic Richard Shanholtzer Jr., the Reno Air Racing Association, another Leeward son, Dirk Leeward, Leeward Racing Inc. and family corporations in Florida, and Aeroacoustics Inc., an aircraft parts maker in Washington state.

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Reno Air Racing Association chief executive Michael Houghton said he hadn't seen the lawsuit but offered "condolences to the families and fans that were affected by this devastating tragedy."

"We fully expect a number of lawsuits to be filed," Houghton told The Associated Press. "This is the first."

Shanholtzer and an Aeroacoustics official did not immediately respond to messages.

Salerno, 50, of Friendswood, Texas, was a dispatcher for Continental Airlines and a lieutenant for a volunteer fire department who also volunteered at an annual Houston air show and was an avid racing pilot. He attended the Reno event with a friend who was hospitalized with critical injuries after the crash.

Speaking for Salerno's family, Buzbee said in a telephone interview that no amount of money could fix the "huge gaping hole ripped from their lives."

The attorney said he wanted to hold "two groups of wrongdoers" accountable: "Those who pushed the limits of physics on the plane, being risk takers and reckless without regard for the people who might be watching them, and those who promoted and profited from hosting the show."

Buzbee also raised questions about the independence of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, pointing to evidence that the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has lobbyists in Washington with ties to the NTSB. Neither the airport nor the federal investigative board was named in the lawsuit.

"A NTSB investigation should not be subject to the efforts of lobbyists," Buzbee said in an Oct. 25 letter to Howard Plagens, the chief NTSB investigator in the Reno crash. "Who will be the lobbyist for the victims?"

NTSB officials did not immediately respond Tuesday to messages seeking comment.

Records show the Reno airport authority paid $62,000 in 2011 to three Washington lobbying firms -- Gephardt Group, Porter Group and Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson -- to handle transportation funding issues before Congress. Gephardt Group is headed by former Democratic House majority leader and presidential candidate Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Former Nevada Republican Congressman Jon Porter heads the Porter Group.

Airport spokesman Brian Kulpin acknowledged that one of the airport's lobbyists hired Peter Goelz, a senior executive at the O'Neill and Associates in Washington and former NTSB official, as a consultant "to interpret the NTSB process."

"There is no lobbying taking place in regards to the air race crash issue at all," Kulpin said. "They're seeking guidance in the NTSB investigation process."

NTSB findings have not been made public and a ruling on the cause of the crash is pending.

Board officials said last month that while investigators found no readable onboard video amid the debris of the crashed aircraft, technicians were still trying to extract information from an onboard data memory card from Leeward's plane.

Leeward was a veteran movie stunt pilot and air racer who competed at the Reno air races since 1975. He said in interviews before the air races that that he hoped modifications to the aircraft he named "The Galloping Ghost" would help win the championship.

The fateful flight was captured on photos and video by hundreds of spectators, and a NTSB board member said investigators found a piece that apparently fell off the tail of as it went out of control.

A witness to the crash at the time told CBS' "Early Show on Saturday Morning" that it looked "like a war zone." "There were just a lot of people laying around and a lot of body parts, pieces of tissue laying around," said Dr. Gerald Lent, a retired optometrist, "and many, many injured people. It looked like a war zone, and people had shrapnel and holes in their head and legs and side. There was just really a disaster. A lot of people were hurt by the flying debris, bolts, and parts of the airplane, and sheet metal was flying through the spectators' stand and through the VIP booths in the front, and it was just going in every direction at the speed of sound; metal was flying."

Photos showed a tail part known as an elevator trim tab missing as the plane climbed sharply, then rolled and plunged nose-first at more than 400 mph into box seats on the tarmac in front of the center of the grandstands. Dead and injured people were scattered widely, but there was no fire.

It was previously reported that the plane went through several refurbishes; Leeward said they were made to make the aircraft go faster.