BEAUFORT — A Blue Angels fighter pilot crashed at a Navy air show last spring because he didn't tense his stomach muscles during a darting, banking turn called "squatting the jet," Navy investigators said Monday.
Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis died April 21 when his F/A-18 Hornet skidded into a residential neighborhood with a boom and a fiery blast during the final maneuvers of the show at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. Investigators say Davis accelerated and turned the plane sharply to catch up to the team as it banked into formation.
The move abruptly ramped up the gravitational force against his body to 6.8 Gs, nearly seven times the force of gravity, and Davis didn't tighten his muscles enough to resist it. A loss of blood flow to his brain likely caused tunnel vision and disorientation, according to a Navy report obtained by The Associated Press.
A former fighter pilot said the Navy's explanation is plausible but improbable.
"Seven Gs, if somebody hasn't experienced it, is enough to pass out. You need to tense every muscle from the tip of your toes to your shoulders. If you don't, you get tunnel vision, red out, gray out, then black out," said retired Lt. Col. W.G. "Moe" Newcomb of Charleston, who flew F-16s for the Air Force.
But for experienced fighter pilots, tensing up "is second nature. You don't even think about it," Newcomb said. Other explanations could be that the planes banked too hard too low to the ground when Davis raced to take the lowest position, or that Davis — whose eye would have been on the jet above him in formation — didn't realize where he was in relation to the trees.
Davis was in his first season flying with the Blue Angels, the Navy's finest demonstration flying team. The report said he did not pass out and worked to regain control of the jet as it crashed.
"We can tell from the attempt to roll left and pitch up ... just prior to impact that he did not let go of the flight controls and, in the last few seconds he may have been aware of his low altitude and was attempting to save the aircraft," wrote Marine Lt. Col. Javier J. Ball.
Davis' parents were watching from the air station as the crash occurred. Through the Navy, the Davis family said they did not want to comment on the report.
The report recommended Blue Angels wear G-suits, which give pilots some protection against G-forces, but said the suit probably wouldn't have made a difference in Davis' case. It also recommended more training and fitness, as well as more-precise practice of the timing of set-up maneuvers between air show maneuvers.
Eight people on the ground were injured, none seriously, Hanzlik said, and homes were damaged. Beaufort Air Station personnel briefed local officials, emergency workers and residents in nearby neighborhoods on the report Monday. Most community leaders and residents were satisfied, said state Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Beaufort County, who attended.
"They've done everything to assure that (the air show) was safe in the past, and from the investigation they are enhancing that safety," Hodges said.
Ron Voegeli, whose son Ray had his truck struck by flames and debris as he backed out the driveway, said the accident has not raised concern in the community.
"You hate to see stuff like that happen," said Voegeli, a veteran. But "this is a military town. This (air show) has been going on so many years, and everybody loves to see it. It's something we look forward to."