RENO, Nev. – Friends of an air racer and movie stunt pilot whose plane crashed into the edge of the grandstand at a show said the 74-year-old was a skilled airman and member of a tight-knit flying community.
Pilot Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Fla., died in the crash Friday after apparently losing control of the P-51 Mustang, which spiraled into a box seat area at the National Championship Air Races at about 4:30 p.m. Friday. Leeward and at least two others were killed; dozens were injured.
Family members were at the air show and saw the crash, said Reno Air Races President and CEO Mike Houghton.
"They obviously are devastated," he said. "I talked to Jimmy's son and his wife wanted me to know that Jimmy would not want us to cancel the races but sometimes you have to do things that are not very popular."
Leeward's pilot's medical records were up-to-date, and he was "a very qualified, very experienced pilot," Houghton said. He'd been racing at the show in Reno since 1975.
"Everybody knows him. It's a tight-knit family," Houghton said. "He's been here for a long, long time."
Leeward gave an interview at the air show Thursday with Live Airshow TV, standing in front of his plane "The Galloping Ghost" and saying he didn't want to show his hand on how fast the plane could go.
"We've been playing poker since last Monday. And ... it's ready, we're ready to show a couple more cards, so we'll see on Friday what happens, and on Saturday we'll probably go ahead and play our third ace, and on Sunday we'll do our fourth ace," Leeward said in the interview.
Leeward owned the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team and was a well-known racing pilot. His website says he had flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including "Amelia" and "Cloud Dancer."
The vintage plane raced in the "Unlimited" category, where the planes race wingtip-to-wingtip at speeds in excess of 500 mph.
"How fast will she go? Hold on tight, you'll find out soon enough. Reno Air Races 2011 ..." said a teaser on Leeward's website.
A post on his Facebook page Friday afternoon said "Jimmy is starting up right now" and posted a link to live video of the airshow. As news of Leeward's death spread, Facebook users posted comments and condolences on the post.
Steve Silver, 69, was Leeward's next-door neighbor at a gated community in Ocala, Fla.
"He's been my friend for many years," Silver said. "He was more than a competent pilot. He was really quite a guy."
Given Leeward's experience with flying, Silver said he doubts pilot error was the cause of the crash.
"It would be my bet there was some kind of mechanical malfunction," Silver said.
Maureen Higgins, of Alabama, said Leeward was the best pilot she knew. She was at the air show and said she could see his profile while the plane was going down. He was married and his wife often traveled with him.
"He's a wonderful pilot, not a risk taker," she said. "He was in the third lap and all of a sudden he lost control."
Leeward grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., and got his private pilot's license at age 16, said Joan Knapp, 85, who worked at his father's air business, Leeward Aeronautical Services at Baer Field. The company, which also had operations in Florida, bought military and other planes and outfitted them for company executives to use, she said.
Knapp left the businesses to start her family in the mid-1950s but helped out from time to time. According to a Florida newspaper interview with Leeward in 2006, he took over his father's Fort Wayne operations after his dad, Al Leeward, moved to Florida. The younger man and his wife, Bette, moved to Ocala, Fla., in 1962 to start the Leeward Air Ranch, a residential airpark.
"Jimmy was born to fly. he could fly anything with wheels," Knapp said.
Jimmy Leeward and his wife had two adult sons, Dirk and Kent, according to his website.
Associated Press Writers Cristina Silva in Las Vegas, David Fischer in Miami and Michelle Price in Phoenix contributed to this report.