updated 9/23/2011 3:11:07 PM ET 2011-09-23T19:11:07

Federal investigators are looking at evidence that something fell off a modified World War II-era racing aircraft as it climbed, rolled and crashed nose-first into spectators, killing 11 during air races in Reno last week, according to a preliminary report released Friday.

The one-week National Transportation Safety Board summary of evidence collected after last weekend's crash at Reno-Stead Airport puts the number of injured at 74 — 66 of them seriously.

The report made no conclusions, and noted that investigators are trying to extract clues from an onboard data box and camera equipment believed to be from the plane. A final report with findings could take more than a year.

Pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., was among the 11 people killed in the crash during the National Championship Air Races. Leeward was a veteran movie stunt pilot and air racer who spoke earlier about modifications he made to squeeze more speed from his P-51 Mustang fighter plane in a bid for a first-place finish.

The NTSB cited photo and video evidence that a piece fell off the aircraft after Leeward completed several laps and made a steep left turn toward the home pylon and grandstand. The plane banked suddenly left, then right, turned away from the race course and pitched into a steep nose-high climb, the report said.

"Witnesses reported, and photographic evidence indicates, that a piece of the airframe separated during these maneuvers," the NTSB said.

The plane then rolled and plunged nose-first into a box seat area in front of the center of the grandstands.

A piece of the aircraft tail was found not quite a mile away from the crash site, NTSB investigators said. Photos showed a tail part, known as an elevator trim tab, missing as the plane went out of control.

Leeward's crew provided to investigators the ground station telemetry data they had gathered, including engine readings and global positioning satellite system information.

The damaged onboard data box was recovered in the wreckage and sent to an NTSB laboratory along with what the report called "pieces of a camera housing and multiple detached memory cards from the airplane's onboard camera."

Investigators were also looking at whether Leeward's health was a factor, safety board member Mark Rosekind said Monday.

Veteran fliers said it's likely that Leeward lost consciousness due to intense gravitational forces during his 400-plus mph climb, and never had a chance to steer out of his death dive.

"He's unconscious," Ernie Christensen, a retired rear admiral and former commander of the Navy's Top Gun fighter school, told The Associated Press in an interview. Christensen noted the P-51 hit the ground at full throttle, indicating that Leeward wasn't in control.

"The power was up and that's an indication he was not in control of the airplane when it hit," he said.

The impact horrified thousands of spectators in the grandstands, and left a crater on the tarmac about 3 feet deep and 6 feet across. It propelled chairs, body parts, blue and red box seat bunting and wreckage over more than two acres. There was no fire.

Rescuers triaged the injured on the tarmac and transported the most seriously hurt to area hospitals where 11 victims remained hospitalized in acute care Friday. Two were moved Thursday to a Reno rehabilitation hospital.

At Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, two people were in critical condition and six were in fair condition, hospital spokesman Dan Davis said. He said one air crash patient from Renown was moved in fair condition to the hospital's rehabilitation center.

The other was apparently transferred from St. Mary's Regional Medical Center in Reno, where three people were in serious condition Friday and one patient who had been listed in serious condition had been discharged, hospital spokeswoman Jamii Uboldi said.

NTSB investigations are notably thorough and usually take more than a year to reach findings of fact and recommendations. In the interim, the board makes public information that investigators have gathered before shifting to an analysis of what went wrong and why.


Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City and Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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

Video: Plane in Reno crash was modified for speed

  1. Closed captioning of: Plane in Reno crash was modified for speed

    >> now the big story from this weekend. the awful scene in reno, nevada. if you have been to an air show you can imagine the horror in the crowd when this modified world war ii era plane, a p-51, plunged to the ground near where people were sitting. we have exclusive new pictures. fair warning they show the moment of impact, exactly what investigators are now zeroing in on. our report from nbc's george lewis .

    >> reporter: this video provides the closest view yet of the p-51 mustang, a world war ii fighter slamming into the ground. [ screaming ]

    >> reporter: ben cecil in the bleachers with his family shot the video.

    >> to be honest it's hard for me to talk about. there was about one to one and a half seconds he was pointed right at us. i started to flinch and then he pulled up and misses the bleachers.

    >> reporter: the video and earlier released still photos show part of the tail section called a trim tab missing. investigators from the ntsb found it over the weekend. the plane also carried a video camera and flight data recorder . the information stored on memory cards like this one. investigators think they have recovered some of the cards and they are hoping to find useful data. the plane was heavily modified for racing, the wings clipped and the engine souped up for speed. the pilot, 74-year-old jimmy leeward.

    >> i know the speed. i know it will do the speed. the systems aren't proven yet. we think they're going to be okay.

    >> reporter: were they okay? that's one question investigators will try to answer. in the chaos that followed the crash, volunteers rushed in to help. some fuelled up an old huey helicopter on display and flew victims to the hospital.

    >> it was an experience that i don't wish upon anybody. you know what i mean ? i don't wish anybody to ever go through that.

    >> reporter: the ntsb is expected to issue safety recommendations for preventing future tragedies like this one.

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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