SMYRNA, Tennessee — The pilot of a Blue Angels jet was killed Thursday during practice for a weekend air show, hours after a Thunderbirds F-16 crashed following a flyover at the U.S. Air Force Academy commencement ceremony attended by the President, officials said.
The Navy said the Blue Angels pilot died from injuries suffered in the crash in Tennessee.
The Thunderbirds pilot safely ejected before the plane went down in Colorado, officials said.
Witness Becca Burgess told CNN affiliate WKRN that the Blue Angels jet seemed low.
“I looked up and saw it coming down, and I thought maybe they were doing dips,” Burgess told the Nashville station. “Then I saw a huge ball of orange fire, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he’s crashed. I cried. I mean, the first thought was fear for the pilot.”
A Navy statement said the service was in the process of notifying the pilot’s family and the pilot’s name was being withheld.
The crash occurred at the beginning of practice, just after the pilot took off, the Navy said. The plane went down about 2 miles from the Smyrna airport.
None of the five other Blue Angels jets was involved in the incident.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the Blue Angels after this tragic loss,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said. “I know that the Navy and Marine Corps team is with me. We will investigate this accident fully and do all we can to prevent similar incidents in the future.”
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels F/A-18 crashed while preparing for The Great Tennessee Air Show, Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Jeanette Groeneveld said.
Smyrna Fire Chief Bill Culbertson said there were already units on the flight line so his crews were able to respond to the crash scene within minutes.
The crash occurred near a former plantation called the Sam Davis Home that is a tourist site, and it also wasn’t far from an apartment complex, Culbertson said.
Robert Hendrix told WKRN he was at the swimming pool at the apartments.
“They were doing their stunts and they were twirling,” he said. “Well, when they split, the one on the right, he done about four or five twirls right, and he was coming by to go back to the airport. All of a sudden, he hit, and the next thing you seen was flames. We were so close you could feel the heat from the flames.”
Just a few hours earlier and about 1,150 miles away, the Thunderbirds F-16 crashed south of Colorado Springs, Colorado, after it and other Thunderbirds flew over a graduation ceremony attended by President Barack Obama.
Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, commander of the Air Force’s Thunderbirds demonstration team, told reporters that the pilot, Maj. Alex Turner, experienced an unspecified problem as he was trying to land after the flyover and ejected.
“He had already put his gear down, and that’s when the incident occurred,” Hammond said, adding that Turner radioed that he was maneuvering so he wouldn’t hit any houses. “He made a conscious effort to direct his aircraft away from some of the local neighborhoods.”
Turner is in his first air-show season with the Thunderbirds, having joined the team in October. He has flown in 22 shows so far, Hammond said. Turner has more than 1,500 hours in F-16s and was a very experienced pilot before joining the Thunderbirds, Hammond said.
The crash occurred 5 nautical miles south of Peterson Air Force base, well away from the stadium where the military branch’s ceremony was taking place, officials said.
The cause of the crash is under investigation. The $36 million jet, which came to rest in a field, looked largely intact from the air despite not having a pilot guiding it.
“I can’t explain it other than it depends on the flight profile at impact. It was slow speed. It was close to the ground. … It looks like it impacted the ground, skidded a little bit,” Hammond said
Hammond added he expects the plane will be considered totaled.
A helicopter carrying Secret Service agents in support of the President’s detail was close by and one of the agents tended to the downed pilot.
President Obama later met with the pilot when he visited the air force base.
“The President thanked the pilot for his service to the country and expressed his relief that the pilot was not seriously injured. The President also thanked the first responders who acted quickly to tend to the pilot,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The crashes cast a pall over the air show season, which began in March and now sees the aerobatics teams at an event each weekend. The Blue Angels have 22 of 36 shows left on their schedule, though it is doubtful they will return to the skies this weekend.
The crash was the first for the Blue Angels since April 2007, when Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis was killed when he crashed during an air show at a Marine Corps air station in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Hammond said the Thunderbirds crash was the squadron’s first since September 2003 when Capt. Chris Stricklin ejected safely before his F-16 hit the ground. None of the 85,000 people at the air show in Mountain Home, Idaho, was injured.
The two demonstration team crashes on one day appear to be first time such a coincidence has occurred.