Weather Perspective: Today’s Navy Blue Angel Tragedy

Tragedy hit too close to home today.  A U.S. Marine Corps pilot was killed while flying a Navy Blue Angel training mission over Smyrna, in preparation for this weekend’s “The Great Tennessee Air Show”.

The Navy is currently investigating the crash, and likely will be for quite some time.  So many pieces of information will be looked at, including the maintenance history of the jet, the medical file of the pilot, the maneuver being employed at the time of the incident, and of course, the weather.

I spent more than eight years in the military, four and a half of which were served on active duty, as a weather officer in the Air Force.

dt

During my time in service, I made forecasts for training bombing missions in the Middle East and at home, briefed thousands of pilots, and even dealt with a number of aircraft mishaps, like this one today.

When I looked back at today’s weather around the time of the incident (3:01pm to be exact), some elements seemed insignificant.

For example, flight level winds (winds at the altitude the aircraft were likely flying through) were very light!  At this point in time, we don’t know how high the Blue Angels were when trouble developed.  Assuming they were flying within the lowest 10,000 feet (roughly 2 miles) of the atmosphere, horizontal wind speeds were only about 10mph one mile off the ground and 20-30mph two miles off the ground.  Those speeds aren’t significant enough to generate noticeable turbulence.

The image below shows the general wind direction at the time of the crash (southwesterly, as depicted by the green wind particles)….

DT DMA TEMPS ZOOM1_EffectSquiggle

The radar was also relatively clear. HOWEVER…notice a shower developing west of Smyrna when the plane went down.

VIDEO VIPIR1

Below shows a radar image from 20 minutes after the accident.  What a difference!

VIDEO VIPIR2

The clouds that produced this developing downpour could be seen through satellite imagery (shared below)…

Jeremy, a Channel 4 viewer, captured this fantastic picture this afternoon of one of the developing showers in the greater Nashville area (see below).

DT3

This is very likely what the shower near Smyrna looked like when it was developing.  It’s even possible it’s the same shower.

There were other similar towering clouds in the area at that time, too….blossoming very quickly!  Notice how sharp the edges of the main cloud in the photo above look.  That indicates how strong the updrafts (rising currents of air) were outdoors this afternoon!  When you have strong updrafts, nearby, you’ll find strong compensating downdrafts (since the whole lower atmosphere can’t be rising all at once).  These updrafts and downdrafts were significant enough to generate turbulence for at least some aircraft in flight at that time.

My point is, while we have no idea yet what caused this airplane to go down today, at the time of the incident, we know there were strong updrafts and downdrafts from developing clouds and showers in the afternoon heat.  This is the sort of weather information being assembled and analyzed by the Navy, that will be serve as part of the investigation in the days to come.

Because of today’s tragedy, the Blue Angels won’t be participating in this weekend’s airshow.  For the latest on all of today’s events regarding this tragedy, please tune in tonight, to Channel 4 News at 10pm.

DT

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