Investigators tried to find out what caused a U.S. Navy Blue Angel jet to crash during an air show, while the military identified the fallen pilot as a 32-year-old who was performing in one of his first shows with the team.
Lt. Cmdr. Kevin J. Davis was in his second year with the Blue Angels, the team known for its high-speed, aerobatic, non-combat demonstrations, Lt. Cmdr. Garrett Kasper said.
A somber crowd watched Sunday as six jets flew overhead in formation near the site of Saturday's crash. Smoke streamed behind one of the jets as it left 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 air show's announcer.
The crash happened as the elite flight demonstration team was performing its final maneuver. Davis' jet crashed just outside Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, with flaming debris hitting neighborhood homes. Eight people on the ground were injured, and some homes were damaged.
Davis, a decorated pilot who joined the Blue Angels in 2005, had previously served as an announcer for the air shows, Reider said. He also handled celebrity flights, and flew with stars such as Kelly Clarkson, actor James Franco and University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops.
His parents were in the crowd when the plane crashed, said Tom McGill, a former neighbor in Davis' hometown.
The squadron's six jets routinely streak low over crowds of thousands at subsonic 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.
Ernie Christensen, a 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.
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 turn, causing him to suffer tunnel vision.