A vintage Second World War-era fighter plane crashed into the grandstands Friday during a popular annual Nevada air show, killing at least three people, injuring more than 50 spectators and creating a horrific scene strewn with body parts and smoking debris.

The plane, flown by a renowned 74-year-old air racer and movie stunt pilot, spiralled suddenly out of control and appeared to disintegrate upon impact. Bloodied bodies were spread across the area as people tended to the victims and ambulances rushed to the scene.

Among the dead was pilot Jimmy Leeward, 74, of Ocala, Fla., who flew the P-51 Mustang named the "Galloping Ghost," in the crash near Reno, according to Mike Houghton, president and CEO of Reno Air Races. Reno Medical Center spokeswoman Kathy Carter confirmed that two others died, but did not provide their identities.

Houghton said it's too early to know for sure what caused the wreck, but said there appeared to be a "problem with the aircraft that caused it to go out of control." He said at least 54 people were sent to the hospital.

Earlier, Stephanie Kruse, a spokeswoman for the Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority, told The Associated Press that emergency crews took a total of 56 injured victims to three hospitals. She said they also observed a number of people being transported by private vehicle, which they are not including in their count.

Kruse said of the total 56, at the time of transport, 15 were considered in critical condition, 13 were serious condition with potentially life-threatening injuries and 28 were non-serious or non-life threatening.

Airport personnel and military evacuated other spectators, and several emergency vehicles were headed to the scene.

The P-51 Mustang crashed into a box seat area at the front of the grandstand at about 4:30 p.m., said race spokesman Mike Draper said.

Leeward is the owner of the Leeward Air Ranch Racing Team and is 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.

Jeff Martinez, a KRNV weatherman, was just outside the air race grounds at the time of the crash. He said he saw the plane veer to the right and then "it just augered straight into the ground."

"You saw pieces and parts going everywhere," he said. "Everyone is in disbelief."

The National Championship Air Races draws thousands of people every year in September to watch various military and civilian planes race.

The races have attracted scrutiny in the past over safety concerns, including four pilots killed in 2007 and 2008. It was such a concern that local school officials once considered whether they should not allow student field trips at the event.

The competition is like a car race in the sky, with planes flying wingtip-to-wingtip as low as 50 feet off the sagebrush at speeds sometimes surpassing 500 mph. Pilots follow an oval path around pylons, with distances and speeds depending on the class of aircraft.