GREAT FALLS, Mont. --
A Canadian Forces Snowbirds jet crashed Friday afternoon during rehearsal for weekend performances at Malmstrom Air Force Base, killing the pilot, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
The Canadian military identified the pilot as Capt. Shawn McCaughey, 31, of Candiac, Quebec.
The crash occurred at 3:45 p.m., when a group of five planes was practicing maneuvers above the base.
The plane broke from the formation and "for some reason shortly thereafter pitched down and crashed," FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said. McCaughey was the only person in the single-engine jet, and he did not eject.
Major Robert Mitchell, the Snowbirds' commanding officer, said the plane was flying upside down about 300 feet off the ground in a "routine maneuver" when it went down.
The team had been in the air for about 45 minutes when the crash occurred, said Mitchell, who was flying lead plane. McCaughey made no radio contact and did not indicate he was having trouble, he said.
"Our team is devastated, and we miss him," Mitchell said during a press conference late Friday at Malmstrom. "He was one of our keenest Snowbirds."
Team members planned to remain at Malmstrom to assist with the investigation, he said.
Col. Richard Foster, commander of 15 Wing Moose Jaw, said McCaughey was a veteran pilot. He had been with the Snowbirds for two years.
"He was a very professional pilot," Foster said at a news conference in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan - the squadron's home base.
"The team will take an operational pause to remember Shawn McCaughey like we need to, and then we will go back and do the rest of the show season," he said.
Including Friday's death, six Snowbirds pilots who have died in crashes since 1972.
The Snowbirds perform high-speed, low-altitude maneuvers in nine Canadair CT-114 Tutors and are part of the Canadian Air Force.
The team had been scheduled to perform Saturday and Sunday at an open house and sport event at Malmstrom.
An event organizer said Malmstrom's open house would continue, but the Snowbirds would not perform.
A witness to the crash, Gillian Scarber, told the Great Falls Tribune newspaper she saw a group of four or five planes practicing a formation when one crashed while coming down on a vertical loop near the south end of Malmstrom's main runway.
"It just smacked into the ground, and there was a big ball of flames," Scarber said. Smoke drifted across the highway as emergency crews raced to the scene, she said.
Gregg Dart, head football coach for Great Falls High School, told the newspaper the planes were flying low and the crash happened quickly.
"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.
"The two planes came back, circled over the top and then went on," he said. "I didn't see a chute - that was the first thing I looked for - but I didn't see anything. And they were so low that I can't imagine anyone getting out."
The Snowbirds have been compared to the Navy's Blue Angels. They fly their planes almost daily, year-round - logging 3,700 hours annually.
A Blue Angels pilot died in a crash last month in Beaufort, S.C.
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The free event on Oct. 13-14 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day is the only air show in the United States to host three jet demonstration teams including the world-renowned U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Canadian Forces Snowbirds and Black Diamond Jet Team Headline Oct. 13-14 Air Show.
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