Image: Pilot Jimmy Leeward
Marilyn Newton  /  AP
This Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 photo, shows long-time Reno Air Race pilot Jimmy Leeward with his P51 Mustang.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/17/2011 3:11:07 PM ET 2011-09-17T19:11:07

Friends of an air racer and movie stunt pilot whose plane crashed into the edge of the grandstand at a show said the 74-year-old was a skilled airman and member of a tight-knit flying community.

Pilot Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Fla., died in the crash Friday after apparently losing control of the P-51 Mustang, which spiraled into a box seat area at the National Championship Air Races at about 4:30 p.m. Friday. Leeward and at least two others were killed; dozens were injured.

Family members were at the air show and saw the crash, said Reno Air Races President and CEO Mike Houghton.

"They obviously are devastated," he said. "I talked to Jimmy's son and his wife wanted me to know that Jimmy would not want us to cancel the races but sometimes you have to do things that are not very popular."

Leeward's pilot's medical records were up-to-date, and he was "a very qualified, very experienced pilot," Houghton said. He'd been racing at the show in Reno since 1975.

"Everybody knows him. It's a tight-knit family," Houghton said. "He's been here for a long, long time."

Pilot discussed plane's speed
Leeward gave an interview at the air show Thursday with Live Airshow TV, standing in front of his plane "The Galloping Ghost" and saying he didn't want to show his hand on how fast the plane could go.

"We've been playing poker since last Monday. And ... it's ready, we're ready to show a couple more cards, so we'll see on Friday what happens, and on Saturday we'll probably go ahead and play our third ace, and on Sunday we'll do our fourth ace," Leeward said in the interview.

Video: Several videos of plane crash emerge (on this page) Story: Death toll rises in Reno air show crash

The vintage plane raced in the "Unlimited" category, where the planes race wingtip-to-wingtip at speeds in excess of 500 mph.

"How fast will she go? Hold on tight, you'll find out soon enough. Reno Air Races 2011 ..." said a teaser on Leeward's website.

A post on his Facebook page Friday afternoon said "Jimmy is starting up right now" and posted a link to live video of the airshow. As news of Leeward's death spread, Facebook users posted comments and condolences on the post.

'Speed, speed and more speed'
Leeward was the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team. According to the Internet Movie Database, Leeward appeared in a number of movies as a stunt pilot, including "Amelia" in 2009, "The Tuskegee Airmen" in 1995 and "Smokey and the Bandit Part 3" in 1983.

In an interview with the Ocala Star-Banner, of Florida, last year, he described how he has flown 250 types of planes and has a particular fondness for the P-51, which came into the war relatively late and was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among the famous pilots of the hot new fighter was WWII double ace Chuck Yeager.

"They're more fun. More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed and more speed," Leeward said.

Leeward talked about racing strategy in an interview Thursday with LiveAirShow TV while standing in front of his plane.

"Right now I think we've calculated out, we're as fast as anybody in the field, or maybe even a little faster," he said.

"But uh, to start with, we didn't really want to show our hand until about Saturday or Sunday. We've been playing poker since last Monday. And uh so, it's ready, we're ready to show a couple more cards, so we'll see on Friday what happens, and on Saturday we'll probably go ahead and play our third ace, and on Sunday we'll do our fourth ace," he added.

A 2010 newspaper article said that Leeward had made major modifications to his plane for racing, including shaving five feet off of each wing and reducing the canopy’s size.

His website said the plane's engine produced 3,800 horsepower and the aircraft was rated to 550 mph. The article said that for races, Leeward was required to wear a helmet, fire protection suit, oxygen mask and parachute.

Good friend
Steve Silver, 69, was Leeward's next-door neighbor at a gated community in Ocala, Fla.

"He's been my friend for many years," Silver said. "He was more than a competent pilot. He was really quite a guy."

Given Leeward's experience with flying, Silver said he doubts pilot error was the cause of the crash.

"It would be my bet there was some kind of mechanical malfunction," Silver said.

Video: Mass casualties at Reno air races after plane crash (on this page)

Maureen Higgins, of Alabama, said Leeward was the best pilot she knew.

She was at the air show and said she could see his profile while the plane was going down. He was married and his wife often traveled with him.

"He's a wonderful pilot, not a risk taker," she said. "He was in the third lap and all of a sudden he lost control."

Houghton described Leeward as a good friend.

"Everybody knows him. It's a tight-knit family. He's been here for a long, long time," Houghton said.

He also said Leeward was a "very qualified, very experienced pilot" who was in good medical condition. He suggested Leeward would have made every effort to avoid casualties on the ground if he knew he was going to crash.

"If it was in Jimmy's power, he would have done everything he possibly could," Houghton said. Leeward and his wife had two adult sons, Dirk and Kent, according to Leeward's website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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

Video: Tail piece suspected in crash

  1. Transcript of: Tail piece suspected in crash

    LESTER HOLT, co-host: It happened yesterday afternoon in front of thousands of people when a vintage World War II fighter plane plunged from the sky into the main grandstand packed with people. It was part of an air race . Here's a picture of the plane, a P-51 Mustang , moments before impact. There's another photo that experts have looked at that suggest perhaps what went wrong. It was being flown by this man, a veteran Hollywood stunt pilot, but it's obviously something went out of control. NBC 's George Lewis is in Reno . He's got the latest on the deadly crash. George , good morning.

    GEORGE LEWIS reporting: Good morning, Lester . A go team from the National Transportation Safety Board is headed to Reno this morning to begin investigating the causes of this tragedy that took the life of the pilot and at least two others on the ground and sent more than 50 others to the hospital. The moment of the crash was captured on video. The camera picks up other planes racing by the stands at low altitude and then one aircraft plunges into the ground near the end of the stands. Organizers of the Reno Air Race called it a mass casualty situation as the aircraft showered debris on the crowd.

    Unidentified Man #1: Everyone started saying uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh. He went down, down, down, down, down, straight down and exploded.

    Unidentified Woman: We saw everything. The plane just splattered.

    LEWIS: In the chaotic aftermath of the crash, emergency responders summoned every ambulance they could to rush the injured to hospitals. The plane in question, a restored World War II vintage P-51 Mustang known as " The Galloping Ghost ." It's unknown at this time what caused the accident.

    Mr. MIKE HOUGHTON (President, National Championship Air Race): Every race pilot understands the risks. They are perhaps the best pilots in the entire world.

    LEWIS: The pilot, longtime air racer Jimmy Leeward , 74 years old in an interview Thursday morning. He sounded confident about getting through the preliminary heats of the race and into the finals.

    Mr. JIMMY LEEWARD: We're as fast as anybody in the field and -- or maybe even a little faster. But to start with, we really didn't want to show our hand until about Saturday or Sunday. We've be playing poker since last Monday. And so it's ready to -- we're ready to show a couple more cards. So we'll see on Friday what happens.

    LEWIS: What happened was horrendous. It's unknown whether Leeward was trying to take evasive action to avoid the crowd.

    Mr. HOUGHTON: If it was in Jimmy 's power, he would've done everything he possibly could.

    LEWIS: But should a pilot that old have been at the controls of a high-performance plane this close to a large crowd of people?

    Mr. HOUGHTON: All of his medical records and everything were up to date, spot on, and Jimmy was a very experienced and talented, qualified pilot.

    Unidentified Man #2: Gentlemen, you look good. Gentlemen, you've got a race.

    LEWIS: The big air race in Reno has been compared to NASCAR . As many as 225,000 turn out for the thrill of watching the pilots pushing their planes to the limit. Now at one point local hospitals here were running short of blood. The Southwest Airlines flight we were on last night was held up in Las Vegas for a while so that more blood supplies could be loaded. Lester :

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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