Investigators looked through wreckage Sunday to determine what caused a Navy Blue Angel jet to crash during a maneuver, while the military identified the fallen pilot as a 32-year-old who was performing in one of his first air shows with the team.
Lt. Cmdr. Kevin J. Davis of Pittsfield, Mass. was in his second year with the Blue Angels, the team known for its high-speed, aerobatic demonstrations, Lt. Cmdr. Garrett Kasper said.
At Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the site of Saturday’s crash, a somber crowd watched Sunday as six jets flew overhead in formation. Smoke streamed behind one of the jets as it peeled away from the others to complete the “missing man formation,” the traditional salute for a lost military aviator.
“The spirit of the pilot is in the arms of a loving God,” said Rob Reider, a minister who was the announcer for the air show.
The crash happened as the team was performing its final maneuver Saturday afternoon during the air show. The team’s six pilots were joining from behind the crowd of thousands to form a triangle shape known as a delta, but Davis’ jet did not join the formation.
Moments later, his jet crashed just outside Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, hitting homes in a neighborhood about 35 miles northwest of Hilton Head Island, S.C. Debris — some of it on fire — rained on homes. Eight people on the ground were injured, and some homes were damaged.
His parents were in the crowd when the plane crashed, said Tom McGill, a former neighbor in Davis’ hometown.
The squadron’s six, F/A-18 Hornets routinely streak low over crowds of thousands at supersonic speeds, coming within feet, sometimes inches, of each other. The pilots, among the Navy’s most elite, are so thoroughly trained and their routines so practiced that deadly crashes are rare; the last one happened in 1999.
The Navy said it could be at three weeks before it announces what may have caused the crash. The squadron returned to its home base of Pensacola Naval Air Station late Sunday.
Ernie Christensen, a retired rear admiral and former Vietnam fighter pilot who flew with the Blue Angels and later commanded the Navy’s Top Gun fighter school in California, said he did not want to speculate about what could have caused the crash. But he said the intense flying leaves no room for human or mechanical error.
“When you are working at high speeds, close to the ground and in close proximity to other aircraft, the environment is extremely unforgiving. That is the reason they practice so many thousands of times,” said Christensen.
26 fatalities in 60 years
The last fatal Blue Angel crash was in 1999, when a pilot and crewmate died while practicing for air shows with the five other Blue Angels jets at a base in Georgia. Saturday’s crash was the 26th fatality in the team’s 60-year history.
The Blue Angels are unique from other jet aviators because they don’t wear the traditional G-suits that most jet pilots use to avoid blacking out during maneuvers that exert strong gravitational forces. The suits inflate around the lower body to keep blood in the brain, but that could cause a pilot to bump the control stick — a potentially deadly move when flying inches from other planes.
After the deadly 1999 crash, the Navy’s air training chief ordered the Blue Angels to consider wearing G-suits. An investigation determined that the most likely cause of that crash was that the pilot was momentarily impaired because of a prior rib injury. Pain from the rib injury might have kept the pilot from tensing his abdominal muscles during a turning causing him to suffer tunnel vision.
Pensacola Mayor John Fogg flew with Blue Angels in 1973 and 1974. During Fogg’s tenure, the squadron had six F-4 crashes and lost three members. Congress held hearings and considered getting rid of the Blue Angels but decided the flying group was beneficial as a recruiting tool and for troop morale, he said.
Friends and neighbors of Davis in his Massachusetts hometown said Sunday he was fascinated with planes from the time he was a child.
During his Navy career, he earned “Top Stick” status in his class at Fighter Squadron 101 at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., while training in F-14 Tomcat jets. He flew missions supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and graduated from Navy Flight Weapons School in 2004.
“He was fascinated with airplanes from the time he was little,” former neighbor Betty Sweeney said. “He knew what he wanted to do, and he did it. That’s the only relief, that he went doing what he wanted to do.”