PENSACOLA, Fla. – The Navy Blue Angels were back home Monday to regroup and mourn the loss of one of their pilots, killed in a crash while performing in one of his first air shows with the team.
Witnesses said the plane clipped a stand of pine trees before it went down in a South Carolina neighborhood Saturday. Investigators were still examining the wreckage, and the Navy said it could be three weeks or more before it announces what caused of the crash.
At the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin J. Davis's parking space was turned into a makeshift memorial with flowers and posters remembering the 32-year-old pilot.
One poster read: "We will always remember No. 6." A small note said: "God bless your soul. Fly high Blue Angel."
Davis was from Pittsfield, Mass., and was in his second year with the Blue Angels, the team known for its high-speed, aerobatic demonstrations, said Lt. Cmdr. Garrett Kasper.
The rest of his squadron decided not to participate in a weekend airshow in Vidalia, Ga., and returned home to tearful reunion with family members late Sunday, Kasper said.
Earlier, at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, the site of the crash, a somber crowd watched 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. The 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, it crashed just outside Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, hitting homes in a neighborhood about 35 miles northwest of Hilton Head Island, S.C.
"It was just taking pine trees and just clipping them," said Raymond Voegeli, a 37-year-old plumber whose truck was showered in flaming debris.
Eight people on the ground were injured, and some homes were damaged as debris rained drown. Authorities have said none of the injuries on the ground appeared to be life threatening.
Davis, a decorated pilot who joined the Blue Angels in 2005, had previously served as a narrator for the air shows, Reider said. He also handled celebrity flights, and flew with stars such as singer Kelly Clarkson and actor James Franco.
The squadron's six, F/A-18 Hornets routinely streak low before air shows that draw crowds of thousands. The pilots, among the Navy's most elite, are so thoroughly trained and their routines so practiced that deadly crashes are rare; the last was in 1999.
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," Christensen said.
The last fatal Blue Angel crash was in 1999, when a pilot and crewmate died while practicing at a base in Georgia. Saturday's crash was the 26th fatality in the team's 60-year history.