updated 11/1/2011 5:53:03 PM ET 2011-11-01T21:53:03

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.

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 denied the board could be lobbied. Spokeswoman Kelly Nantel emphasized the agency's role as an independent and nonpartisan investigator "separate and distinct from regulatory agencies, carriers, service providers, and industry groups."

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, is a former member of the Akerman firm and now heads his own Porter Group.

Reno-Tahoe Airport director Krys Bart said the airport no longer has a contract with Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson.

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 an NTSB board member said investigators found a piece that apparently fell off the tail of as it went out of control.

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.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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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.


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