Crash kills air show pilot
A veteran Canadian Air Force Snowbirds pilot rehearsing the skies above Malmstrom Air Force Base was killed Friday when his jet split from its formation and plummeted to the ground.
Capt. Shawn McCaughey, 31, of Candiac, Quebec, the deputy team leader, was killed instantly when his jet smashed into a field near the MAFB runway. He is the sixth Snowbird pilot killed since 1972.
The weekend aerial maneuvers are on hold pending results of an investigation, said Malmstrom’s wing commander, Col. Sandy Finan.
The sudden crash about 3:45 p.m. stunned onlookers watching the elite Canadian fliers practice low-level, high-speed maneuvers for the Malmstrom Open House and Sports Auto-Rama today and Sunday.
“We were just in shock,” said Janine Palmer, a C.M. Russell High student who witnessed the crash with her friend, Lena Lace. “We just looked at each other and screamed.”
No one ejected from the single-engine jet, said Allen Kenitzer, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It’s difficult to speculate and puzzling to us,” Team Leader Maj. Robert Mitchell of Victoria, B.C., said in a news conference at Malmstrom on Friday night.
He said they were in an inverted pass formation, which McCaughey might have been rolling out of because he was unhappy with it.
“He was a tremendous pilot, professional officer and dear friend,” said Mitchell. “Our team is devastated, and we miss him already.”
The Canadian Forces Flight Safety Team is expected to arrive at Malmstrom today to begin its own investigation.
McCaughey, with more than 1,400 hours of military flight time, is the first Snowbirds pilot to have no previous experience on the CT-114 Tutor aircraft. But that should not have mattered because the aircraft is “fairly uncomplicated,” said Lt. Petra Smith, a spokeswoman for the Snowbirds.
Gregg Dart, head football coach at Great Falls High School, was watching the maneuvers as he and his son, Chase, 11, sat in their car parked on Highway 87/89 just outside the air base.
As the group of Snowbirds flew toward them, the Darts watched as one of the middle aircraft fell back, then shot straight down.
“It was less than a second before it hit the ground,” Dart said. “There was a thud, then the shock wave of it hitting. After that, there was a big black cloud and the smell of jet fuel.”
Dart looked for a pilot floating from a parachute, but didn’t see one. “They were so low that I can’t imagine anyone getting out.”
Lt. Jeff Noel, a spokesman for the 15 Wing Moose Jaw, said all the pilots participating in the MAFB show were veteran pilots.
Matt Behr, a C.M. Russell High School junior who was shooting the rehearsal with his camera at 57th Street and 6th Avenue South, photographed the Snowbirds and their formations just seconds before the plane went down. He had been shooting the aerobatic maneuvers for about 10 minutes before the crash.
“A couple of seconds later, there was a puff of smoke and then a boom,” Behr said. “I didn’t think it was real at first. I thought, maybe it’s pyrotechnics. I didn’t want to believe it at first.”
Several residents at the air base said dozens of emergency vehicles were gathered near the south end of the base runway, which has been closed for the past decade.
Not far from the Bar-S Lounge on Highway 87/89, Gillian Scarber of Geyser parked off the road with dozens of other cars to watch the Snowbirds practice their drills.
It just smacked into the ground," Scarber said. "There was a big ball of flames and then the smoke just drifted onto the highway.
Since the main runway at Malmstrom has been closed, the Snowbirds have been taking off and landing at the Great Falls International Airport on Gore Hill, said Montana Air National Guard Public Information Officer Capt. Jeff Pepke.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the team, and our resources are at their disposal,” said Finan.