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Movie stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward dies in Reno air race crash, but may have saved lives

Bryan Alaspa's picture

One of the tragedies of the horrible crash of a vintage P-51 World War II fighter plane during the Reno Air Race crash was the death of the legendary pilot behind the controls.

Jimmy Leeward, 74, from Ocala, Florida, was a legend among people who know flying. He was not only a skilled flyer in air shows, but you have probably seen his work on the silver screen. Leeward was also a legendary movie stunt pilot. Now he is being called a hero for last-minute maneuvers he made before his plane crashed during a Reno air show.

According to media reports, the plane was in the middle of the fourth lap of the air race when it suddenly lost control. Leeward was experienced flying the vintage aircraft known as The Galloping Ghost. Exactly what went wrong is, at this point, unknown, but the plane went straight up, moved around and then crashed in front of the grand stand. Many say that had Leeward not made those maneuvers at the last minute the plane would have crashed directly into the stands, potentially killing dozens more.

The crash was spectacular and killed Leeward immediately. Debris flew into the box seats in front of the spectator stands. Over 50 were injured severely, may losing limbs and suffering critical and severe injuries. Two spectators died. While the conditions of many are still critical, many say that the death toll and catastrophe could have been much worse.

Leeward was a flying legend. In addition to being a famous and experienced air racer, he was also a movie stunt pilot. He had flown in a stunt plane in over 100 films, including Amelia and Cloud Dancer and The Tuskegee Airmen.

According to reports, Leeward’s medical records were up to date and he was certified as healthy and capable of flying. Many who knew him believe that it was unlikely pilot error that caused the crash, but most likely something wrong with his plane that he could just not control.

The Reno Air Races have been running since the 1960s. They have courted controversy before and have had over a dozen accidents over the years. There have been may who wonder if the races should continue. The races have several different levels, depending on the type of aircraft used, from jets to vintage planes like the one Leeward was piloting.

The officials of the air races have canceled the event for the remainder of the weekend after the disaster on Friday afternoon.

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