A U.S. Navy Blue Angels aerobatic fighter jet crashed during a practice session outside Nashville on Thursday afternoon, killing the pilot in what witnesses described as an explosive vertical collision with the ground shortly after takeoff.
The pilot of the jet, one of six members of the Navy’s precision flying team, was taking off to start the afternoon practice when the mishap occurred about two miles from the runway in Smyrna, Tenn., Navy officials said.
Witnesses said the plane appeared to have crashed into a field about two miles from the runway.
News of the Blue Angels crash came not long after the U.S. Air Force’s flying aerobatic team, the Thunderbirds, reported one of its F-16 fighter jets had crashed near Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The Thunderbird accident occurred following a flyover at an Air Force Academy commencement ceremony attended by President Obama. The pilot ejected safely and met briefly afterward with Obama, who thanked him and said he was glad he wasn’t more seriously injured, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
In Tennessee, the Blue Angels group had been begun practicing at 3 p.m. for an airshow this weekend in Smyrna. The Blue Angels, which fly F/A-18 jets, drew attention Thursday morning when they flew over downtown Nashville.
Dale Sawyer, an area aviation enthusiast who was watching from the Smyrna airport, said the six Blue Angel jets had just begun their practice when the crash happened.
One pilot began flying straight up in the air for a solo stunt, but when the pilot looped back toward the ground, the jet did not pull out of the loop in time and crashed, Sawyer told the Los Angeles Times.
Hosie Holomon, a local resident who was driving near the airport, said the jet was flying “vertical to the ground” when it crashed.
“It was the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen in my life,” Holomon said.
“Never once have I seen an explosion like that,” said another area resident, Russell Tyler, who said he’s grown up with the sound of Blue Angels flying overhead every summer.
The precision flying team had promoted its upcoming weekend air show on its Facebook page, promising a flyover at Nashville International Airport Thursday morning before the team made its way to Smyrna. “We hope you’re ready to see Blues in the sky, Nashville,” the team posted.
Officials in Smyrna quickly locked down the airport and one of the other jets was circling around and around, presumably searching for the pilot, said Sawyer, who added that he didn’t see the pilot eject or see a parachute. The other five Blue Angel jets were not involved in the incident and landed safely moments later.
As onlookers waited to be let out of the airport, Sawyer said a staff member who appeared to be with the Navy team drove up to the gate and asked the gate attendant if they had a good contact for a chaplain.
The F/A-18 is a twin-engine fighter attack jet made by Boeing Co. that has been a fixture on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers since 1983.
The aircraft’s fuselage sections are manufactured by Northrop Grumman Corp. in Los Angeles, in a 1-million-square-foot facility on Aviation Boulevard, about a mile south of Los Angeles International Airport.
There have been at least four crashes and five deaths involving Blue Angels pilots since 1980, according to a search of news reports. The most recent fatal crash came in 2007 in South Carolina, when a 32-year-old Blue Angels pilot crashed into a residential neighborhood in one of his first shows with the team.
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Colorado Springs contributed to this story.
4:21 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with an AP source saying the pilot did not eject.
This article was originally published at 2:22 p.m.