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Reno crash raises questions about the future of air races

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Mr. Leeward, a real estate developer and owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team in Ocala, Fla., was a veteran pilot who’d flown 250 types of aircraft. He was a long-time racer who’d flown at Reno since 1975, and he’d flown as a stunt pilot in such films as "Amelia," Cloud Dancer," and "The Tuskegee Airmen."

In an interview with the Ocala Star-Banner last year, Leeward talked about the P-51 – the aircraft flown in combat in World War II by famed pilot Chuck Yeager, who once shot down five enemy aircraft on a single mission.

"They're more fun. More speed, more challenge,” Leeward said of the P-51. “Speed, speed and more speed.”

Initial reports indicated that the pilot had pulled up and called “mayday” before plummeting straight down at high speed into the box seats at the end of the spectator area.

At this writing, three people (including the pilot) have died as a result of the crash and 56 were taken to local hospitals, many of them critically injured.

But given the total destruction of the aircraft, former NTSB investigator Greg Feith told MSNBC, the exact cause of the accident – perhaps a mechanical failure or a medical situation experienced by the pilot – may never be known.

Some have raised questions about Leeward’s age, initially reported as 80 but then corrected to 74. Those who knew him well reject the suggestion that he was too old to participate in such a stressful and potentially dangerous sport requiring physical strength, extraordinary reflexes, and the ability to react instantly to emergency situations including engine failure at low level.

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