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Reno crash raises questions about the future of air races

The Reno Air Races turned disastrous Friday when a P-51 Mustang aircraft crashed into the spectator area. The accident raises questions about the way such races are conducted.

By Staff writer / September 17, 2011

This 2010 photo shows long time Reno Air Race pilot Jimmy Leeward with his P-51 Mustang, a highly modified World War II fighter. During a race Friday, the aircraft crashed into the spectator area killing three people and injuring 56.

Marilyn Newton/The Reno Gazette-Journal/AP

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[UPDATE: The number of people killed in the Reno Air Races crash Friday has risen to nine, according to the Reno police. Also, a T-28 aircraft crashed on the runway during a six-aircraft routine Saturday at an airshow in Martinsburg, West Virginia, killing the pilot. There were no other casualties, according to initial reports.]

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The crash at the Reno Air Races in Nevada Friday afternoon – the worst accident in the history of the event – raises questions about the future of what’s billed as “the world’s fastest motorsport.”

Have the capabilities of the high-speed aircraft flown at very low level exceeded the abilities of even the best pilots? Should age be a consideration in allowing pilots to compete? Should the race course be moved farther away from the tens of thousands of spectators who gather there each September.

Sometimes likened to the top race cars as “Formula One with wings,” racing aircraft fly at up to 500 miles an hour and less than 100 feet above the ground. The fastest categories fly an 8-mile oval course around pylons.

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Many of the competing aircraft started out as vintage World War II fighters, such as the P-51 Mustang and the F8F Bearcat. But they are highly modified, with larger engines and aerodynamic characteristics that have been altered to increase performance during high-G turns that can stress airframes.

Jimmy Leeward, the pilot in the crash, was flying a P-51 named the "Galloping Ghost."

Mr. Leeward, a real estate developer and owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team in Ocala, Fla., was a veteran pilot who’d flown 250 types of aircraft. He was a long-time racer who’d flown at Reno since 1975, and he’d flown as a stunt pilot in such films as "Amelia," Cloud Dancer," and "The Tuskegee Airmen."

In an interview with the Ocala Star-Banner last year, Leeward talked about the P-51 – the aircraft flown in combat in World War II by famed pilot Chuck Yeager, who once shot down five enemy aircraft on a single mission.

"They're more fun. More speed, more challenge,” Leeward said of the P-51. “Speed, speed and more speed.”

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