Federal investigators on Saturday began looking into what caused a 74-year-old pilot to lose control of his Second World War-era plane and crash next to a VIP section at a Nevada air race in an accident that killed at least nine people and sent dozens to the hospital.

"The focus now is on gathering factual information," said Mark Rosekind of the National Transportation Safety Board during a news conference late Saturday afternoon. Rosekind said investigators have walked through and assessed the accident site, adding that they will also be checking out all the video and photos taken by people watching the show.

Rosekind says investigators have recovered "a component" which may or may not have caused the crash..

Tim O'Brien of Grass Valley, Calif., who is chairman of an air show in his hometown and photographed Friday's races, said Leeward's plane was racing six other planes and was in the process of moving from third place into second when it pitched violently upward, rolled and then headed straight down.

From the photos he took, O'Brien said it looked like a piece of the plane's tail called a "trim tab" had fallen off. He believes that's what caused the plane's sudden climb.

'No fire'

When the aircraft hit the ground, there was a "big explosion but no fire," O'Brien said.

A police official confirmed there were a total of nine dead, up from the three confirmed yesterday. He said seven bodies were still on the tarmac including that of the pilot.  Fifty-four people were taken to hospital and 17 are still being treated: eight are critical and nine are serious.

As thousands watched in horror, the P-51 Mustang suddenly pitched upward, rolled and nose-dived toward the crowded grandstand Friday. It then slammed into the tarmac and blew to pieces in front the pilot's family and a tight-knit group of friends who attend the annual event in Reno.

A team from the NTSB arrived from Washington to join regional officials. Earlier, board spokesman Terry Williams said it's too early to say what caused the crash, though event organizers suggested a mechanical problem.

Veteran Hollywood stunt pilot Jimmy Leeward was killed as the aircraft hit the tarmac, while it appears the other deaths were caused by flying debris.

Organizers said it appeared mechanical failure with the P-51 Mustang — a class of fighter plane that can fly in excess of 800 kilometres an hour — was to blame.

Pilot pulled away from bleachers, witnesses say

Some credit the pilot with preventing the crash from being far more deadly.

Canadian incidents

The crash at the Reno air show happened less than a month after a pilot with the British military's Red Arrows aerobatics display died in a crash during an air show in southern England.

Canadian air shows have also seen their share of accidents in recent years, including these:

  • March 1, 2011: A Snowbird pilot was forced to land the plane on its belly at the team's base in Moose Jaw, Sask., after the jet's landing gear failed to deploy properly. The pilot walks away.
  • July 23, 2010: Canadian Forces pilot Capt. Brian Bews ejected from a fighter jet just moments before it crashed and exploded at the Alberta International Airshow. Bews spent six months recovering from back injuries before he could return to the cockpit. 
  • Oct. 9, 2008: A Snowbird jet carrying pilot Capt. Bryan Mitchell and photographer Sgt. Charles Senecal crashed in a farmer's field in southwest Saskatchewan. Both men were killed.
  • May 18, 2007: Capt. Shawn McCaughey of Quebec was killed when his CT-114 Tutor jet crashed while he practiced for an air show at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in northern Montana.
  • Dec. 10, 2004: Two Snowbirds jets crashed in mid-air during a practice near Mossbank, Sask. One pilot, Capt. Miles Selby, 31, was killed, and the other, Capt. Chuck Mallett, sustained minor injuries.

"If he wouldn't have pulled up, he would have taken out the entire bleacher section," said Tim Linville, 48, of Reno, who watched the race with his two daughters.

A doctor who witnessed the crash said the scene looked like a "a war zone" as people were struck by parts of the shattered plane. Small pieces of "shrapnel" were sent through the air at bullet speed, Gerald Lent told CBC News.

"They were flying like missiles, bullets through the air, and for about half a mile down the tarmac, it was just pieces of airplane. There wasn't any piece bigger than a foot."

People tended to the blooded victims spread across the site, while ambulances rushed to the scene.

Friends of Leeward said he was a skilled airman and member of a tight-knit flying community. Family members were at the air show and saw the crash, said Mike Houghton, the Reno Air Races president and CEO.

Leeward's pilot's medical records were up-to-date, and he was "a very qualified, very experienced pilot," Houghton said. 

"Everybody knows him. It's a tight-knit family," Houghton said. "He's been here for a long, long time."

Video and photos of the crash were captured by several people in the stands, and the horrific images of the wreckage were transmitted around the world within minutes.

The National Championship Air Races have been deadly before. Two pilots died at the event in 1994. And organizers softened two of the curves pilots negotiate after two more pilots crashed into nearby neighbourhoods in 1998 and 1999.

In 2007 and 2008, four pilots were killed at the races, prompting local school officials to consider barring student field trips to the event.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that prior to Friday's crash,17 people had been killed at the air races since their start 1964.

Planes at the yearly event fly wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 15 metres off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 800 km/h. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.

Houghton said hours after the crash that there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control." He did not elaborate.

He said the rest of the races have been cancelled as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.

Racing against 6 other planes

"The way I see it, if he did do something about this, he saved hundreds if not thousands of lives because he was able to veer that plane back toward the tarmac," said Johnny Norman, who was at the show.

O'Brien, who is chair of an air show in his hometown in California, was photographing Friday's races when the crash occurred.

He said the P-51 Mustang was racing six other planes, and was in the process of moving from third place into second, when it pitched violently upward, rolled and then headed straight down.

From the photos he took, O'Brien said it looked like a piece of the plane's tail called a "trim tab" had fallen off. He believes that's what caused the plane's sudden climb.

When the aircraft hit the ground, there was a "big explosion but no fire," O'Brien said.

"The propeller (was) spinning very fast, and there was a lot of mass coming down all at once," he said. It was a "very violent impact."

Afterward, a number of people were standing around, and "all we could do was hug each other," he said.

Pilot was 'headed straight for us'

Maureen Higgins of Alabama, who has been coming to the air races for 16 years, said the pilot was on his third lap when he lost control.

"Obviously, he had no control. He was wobbling. He went upside down and then he headed straight for us, straight at the grandstand."

She was sitting about  27 metres away from the crash and watched in horror as the man in front of her started bleeding after debris hit him in the head.

"I saw body parts and gore like you wouldn't believe it. I'm talking an arm, a leg," Higgins said "The alive people were missing body parts. I am not kidding you. It was gore. Unbelievable gore."

Renown Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed that two others besides the pilot died, but did not provide their identities.

"This is a very large incident, probably one of the largest this community has seen in decades," Kruse told The Associated Press.

"The community is pulling together to try to deal with the scope of it. The hospitals have certainly geared up and staffed up to deal with it."

'Speed, speed and more speed'

Gov. Brian Sandoval noted at a news conference that area hospitals were in need of blood in the wake of the crash, and he encouraged people to donate.

Leeward, the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team, was a well-known racing pilot. His website says he has flown more than 120 races and served as a stunt pilot for numerous movies, including "Amelia" and "Cloud Dancer."

In an interview with the Ocala, Fla., Star-Banner last year, he described how he he'd flown 250 types of planes and had a particular fondness for the P-51, which came into the war relatively late and was used as a long-range bomber escort over Europe. Among the famous pilots of the hot new fighter was WWII double ace Chuck Yeager.

"They're more fun," Leeward said. "More speed, more challenge. Speed, speed and more speed."