By Stephen Ward
RENO, Nev (Reuters) - Federal investigators probing the wreckage of a World War II-era fighter that crashed near the grandstands at a Nevada air race have recovered memory cards that could be from recording devices on the downed plane, officials said on Sunday.
They also said they had found no indication yet that the pilot of the plane sent out a distress call before his sleek silver jet plunged nose-down into the tarmac at the Reno Air Races on Friday, killing nine people.
But the plane, in a development that could help the investigation, had apparently been equipped with an outward-facing video recorder and would have also streamed real-time data to the racing team before the crash.
"This is very significant for the accident investigation," Mark Rosekind, a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a news conference, adding that multiple memory cards and video camera fragments had been found at the crash site.
Pilot Jimmy Leeward, a 74-year-old real estate developer well known in air racing circles, was at the controls of "The Galloping Ghost" fighter jet when it slammed into a box seat area in front of the grandstand.
Leeward, who had worked as a stunt pilot in movies, died along with eight others, and more than 50 people were transported to area hospitals to be treated for injuries.
Federal investigators have said they would focus in part on the plane's tail assembly, although Rosekind said it was not yet determined whether an item found less than a mile from the crash site was a component of the plane's tail.
A photograph of the modified P-51 Mustang in the seconds before it slammed into an airfield at the 48th Annual National Air Championship Races on Friday afternoon appears to show a component of the plane's tail section falling off.
MEMORY CARDS WILL BE ANALYZED
Officials said it was not immediately clear whether the memory cards found at the wreckage were from video or audio recorders belonging to the downed plane, but said they would be analyzed for any useful information on the crash.
Some of the data that may have been streamed to Leeward's team from the plane include information on oil pressure, oil temperature, altitude, velocity, and latitude and longitude.
Rosekind said that while the information would have contained fewer variables than normally found in a plane's black box, it could still be useful for the probe.
Friday's crash was the first of two fatal air show accidents involving vintage planes in two days. On Saturday, a plane crashed in a fireball at a Martinsburg, West Virginia, air show, killing the pilot.
The incidents raised questions about the safety of air shows and races, and Rosekind said investigators would evaluate the Reno Air Races to see if proper safety protocols were followed.
Leeward had said in a June video that his crew cut 10 feet off his plane's length and made other modifications to improve its aerodynamic abilities and reach speeds of 500 miles per hour.
Proximity to the planes is clearly a draw for the annual Reno race, which advises on its website, "Always remember to fly low, fly fast and turn left."
Mike Draper, a spokesman for the races, has said the planes sometimes fly at high speeds "about 50 feet off the ground and it's an exciting, exciting sight."
The thrill has been a deadly one on occasion, with the nine deaths on Friday marking 28 people killed in the history of the race, flown every year in Reno since 1964, Draper confirmed.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Colleen Jenkins)