Tim O'brien  /  AP
A P-51 Mustang airplane is shown right before crashing at the Reno Air show on Friday in Reno Nevada. The plane plunged into the stands at the event in what an official described as a "mass casualty situation."
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updated 9/17/2011 4:57:17 PM ET 2011-09-17T20:57:17

It's like an Indianapolis 500 in the sky.

Thrill-seeking pilots zoom by at speeds up to 500 mph as spectators "ooh" and "aah" at the site of jets, vintage planes and high-performance aircraft whizzing past with their wingtips nearly touching. Even the sounds are awe-inspiring amid the deafening roar of airplanes that are sometimes just few hundred feet away from spectators.

Story: Death toll rises in Reno air show crash

But the consequences can be deadly. The air race in Reno where a vintage plane plummeted from the sky and killed at least nine people has drawn scorn over the years as critics assailed the event as a recipe for the kind of disaster that played out on Friday in front of thousands of people. The crash has led to calls that officials consider halting the event, the only one of its kind in the United States.

"I think an accident of this nature, it certainly threatens the future of the air races," said Doug Bodine, a pilot who has raced at Reno for the last six years. "Both the FAA and (Reno race) will suffer extensive and ongoing scrutiny, and I think they need to consider ending the air races as one of the options."

The National Championship Air Races turned deadly on Friday when veteran pilot Jimmy Leeward lost control of his World War II-era plane and crashed into the crowd. It was the first time spectators had been killed since the races began 47 years ago in Reno.

Twenty pilots including Leeward have died in that time, race officials said. Three pilots died while racing in the 2007 competition and another was killed during a practice race the next year.

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

Past deaths have led to on-again-off-again calls for better safety at the races, but it kept growing into a major event in Reno. Local officials say the races generate tens of millions of dollars for the local economy during the five-day event held every September, and the stakes are high for the pilots. About $1 million prize money is up for grabs, and a local sports book even took wagers this year on the event.

Schools often take students on field trips to the races, and Washoe County School Superintendent Heath Morrison said officials will re-examine whether that practice should continue given the tragedy.

Story: 'A wonderful pilot, not a risk taker'

The event is already subject to stringent regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration, including an examination of pilot qualifications, their airplanes and records and a requirement that airmen complete rigorous training before being allowed to compete, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. He said the FAA also requires organizers to come up with a thorough race plan and demonstrate to the agency that they have done as much as they can to ensure the crowd's safety.

But all the regulations in the world won't prevent deaths in the event that a competitor plunges into spectators.

'The sport is in delicate shape'
Organizers acknowledge that there's an inherent risk, especially for pilots during their white-knuckle rides filled with sharp turns and large G-forces on the oval course. But they say it's no different than a drag race or Indy or NASCAR event where deaths occur and shrapnel flies into crowds and injuries fans.

They often cite statistics showing how places like Daytona International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway have had more deaths than the Reno races, and there are many other examples where extreme racing sports result in death. For example, eight spectators were killed and at least a dozen injured last summer in the Mojave Desert in Southern California when a modified pickup truck taking part in the "California 200" off-road race slammed into a crowd.

"When you fly an airplane, there are certain risks just taking off and landing," said Michael Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Races. "When you add the other dimension of racing — it's a fast sport. It's not unlike Indianapolis or NASCAR."

Asked whether the Reno Air Racing Association board will consider permanently ending the event, Houghton replied, "Just as everything we do, we look at it from A to Z. We have an incredible board that looks at all the options. And it's not just us. There is a rather large race community. We will talk with the race classes and the pilots and we'll evaluate what we do."

Don Berliner, president of the Society of Air Racing Historians and a former Reno Air Races official, said he thinks there's not much that can be done to improve race safety. He said organizers could put a speed limit on the race so fast planes cannot race anymore, or move fans farther away from the planes, but fans don't travel from all around the country to Reno every September to be miles away from the action.

"Other than moving the race course a mile or so away from the grandstands, I don't see how you can make the sport safer," Berliner said. "If you do that, all you're doing is giving spectators a much worse view.

"I'm afraid the sport is in delicate shape at the moment," he added.

Interactive: Reno air race crash (on this page)

Weighing future plans
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who has raced stock and modified cars for years, said he is a longtime fan of the air races and he hopes they can continue but only if they can assure the safety of spectators.

"If we can't protect spectators, I'd take a hard look at the future of the sport," he said.

Tom Rose is a commercial pilot in Mississippi whose his father died racing in the same Reno event in 2002 in what appeared to be similar circumstances, although he crashed far from the crowd.

His father, 62-year-old Tommy Rose, was flying an experimental sport plane about 200 feet off the ground when a stabilizer broke off the tail, his son said Saturday. At that altitude, he had nowhere to go but down.

Story: Initial report on deadly W.Va. crash due in days

He said in his dad's case, like many crashes at the air show, he had just pushed his plane beyond its limits in an effort to win, and it broke apart.

"But you want to push your plane to its limits because you want to be competitive. That's what you're there for," he said.

Still, Rose said, he'd like to see the races continue.

"My dad passed doing what he loved, and I think so many of those guys who fly out there would say the same thing," he added. "They'd rather go this way than in a nursing home."

___

Associated Press Writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.

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 :

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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