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Air Show Disasters

Tragedy struck from the air over the weekend of September 17 and 18, 2011, as two separate air shows ended in disaster. A combined eleven people were reported dead due to the crashes on Monday after the events.

In Reno, Nevada, over 70 people were injured and ten died when a souped-up World War ll model P-51 Mustang slammed into the VIP spectator area of the National Championship Air Races at the Reno Stead Airport. The aircraft veered up slightly just before impact, missing the crowded bandstand.

The 65-year-old airplane had undergone extensive renovations during its years as a racing craft. Wings had been shortened, and the ailerons, which control the plane’s balance, had been shortened to just over half the original length. In a YouTube podcast, posted in June, 2011, Leeward said, "I know it'll do the speed. The systems aren't proven yet. We think they're going to be OK."
The accident, which happened Friday afternoon, was the worst air show incident in US history. The pilot of the Mustang, Jimmy Leeward, was an experienced pilot, with more than 100 air races behind him. While many of the spectators reported being doused in aviation fuel, which burned their skin, the plane did not explode. Officials credit that for the relatively small number of casualties.


"Everybody is talking about how surprised they are that it didn't go fireball," he said. "It's the big question, the big mystery ... no one knows why it didn't fireball," said Ray Sherwood. The pilot, resident of Placerville, California, said the lack of explosion was much debated as the weekend wore on.

The crowd, made up largely of veterans, pilots and others trained in emergency situations, immediately went into rescue mode, assisting firefighters and paramedics as they rushed into the scene. What could have been a scene of chaos was, instead, handled efficiently. This, too, saved lives. One possible cause for the lack of fire is the velocity of the craft when it hit the ground and disintegrated. It is possible that the high rate of speed extinguished the sparks that would create a catastrophe.

One day later, across the country in West Virginia, another crash occurred. John "Jack" Mangan, a decorated Air Force pilot and instructor, crashed before hundreds of horrified spectators. He died in the crash, which caused his plane to erupt into flames, but no spectators were injured.

Both crashes are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

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