OCALA, Fla. — The pilot who crashed his World War II-era racing aircraft into a crowd of spectators during an air show in Reno was remembered Friday as a fun-loving, adventurous man who was deeply devoted to his family and passionate about airplanes.
More than 1,000 people attended funeral services at a Catholic church in Florida for 74-year-old Jimmy Leeward.
Eleven people, including Leeward, were killed in the Sept. 16 crash. During the Reno Air Races, Leeward’s P-51 hit the ground at 400 mph as thousands of spectators in the grandstands watched. The impact left a crater on the tarmac about 3 feet deep and 6 feet across. It propelled chairs, body parts, blue and red box seat bunting and wreckage over more than two acres. There was no fire.
Leeward’s family was attending the airshow that day.
On Friday, Leeward’s family — his wife of 52 years and their four children — gathered to say goodbye. Also in attendance were his grandchildren, extended family and hundreds of friends from the Ocala community and from around the country.
Leeward was a veteran movie stunt pilot and air racer. He lived in Ocala, Fla., where he and his family had developed the Leeward Air Ranch, a 500-acre gated community where residents build custom homes and have their own taxiways to a main runway.
Lanny Curry told the crowd of his friend’s adventurous spirit; Leeward loved fishing, hunting and skiing. But his true passion was flying. He took not only his children up in planes from the time they were small but also friends and members of the community. Priests at the service said that when they were planning their new church in Ocala, Leeward flew them to look at different buildings and was instrumental in the project.
Leeward was born in 1936 in Brackenridge, Pa., according to his obituary posted on his community’s website. He grew up in an aviation family and flew his first solo flight when he was 14. He met his wife, Bette, while they were both in high school in Indiana. Leeward became a real estate developer but aviation was always a main presence in his life; Leeward flew relief supplies to countries following disasters and piloted more than 250 types of aircraft during his lifetime.
At the funeral, his four children said their father set an example of a devoted husband and father, all while being a happy-go-lucky adventurer.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused the Reno crash. A preliminary report released recently made no conclusions. Investigators are trying to extract clues from an onboard data box and camera equipment believed to be from the plane. A final report with findings could take more than a year.