BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — A 40-year-old driver is dead after his jet-powered semi truck performing at the Field of Flight in Battle Creek Saturday afternoon caught fire and crashed.
It happened around 1:10 p.m. at the Battle Creek Executive Airport during the SHOCKWAVE Jet Truck pyrotechnic portion of the air show, according to the Battle Creek Police Department in a release.
Drivers and pilots were performing Field of Flight activities, which features pyrotechnics, aircraft performing aerial stunts, and the SHOCKWAVE Jet Truck racing them over 300 mph down the airport runway. During this maneuver, the jet truck flipped off the runway and burst into flames.
“All of a sudden, you just sort of this raging fireball going down the runway, and this ball of debris,” said Brandon Lacic, who was with his family watching the air show this afternoon.
“One of my children looked up and said, ‘Dad, was that part of the act?’ And I said ‘I don’t think so. This is bad.’ Right away, the P.A. announcer came on and said, ‘We’ve had an incident… our personnel are getting out there and working on it,'” Lacic recalled.
First responders later confirmed that one person died from the incident. Field of Flight administrators then broke the news that the victim was the driver of the truck: 40-year-old Chris Darnell, a lifelong motorsports enthusiast and experienced racer.
According to his bio on the SHOCKWAVE Jet Truck website, Darnell had competed in different types of racing throughout his life and owned a Truck Accessory Company called 4 Wheel Customs. He shared duties with his father driving the SHOCKWAVE Jet Trucks.
Saturday night, his father, Neal Darnell, wrote that the accident happened because of a “mechanical failure on the Jet Truck,” in a post on the SHOCKWAVE Jet Truck Facebook page.
“Obviously, we were scared. I was scared for the family, just for everybody involved,” said Ryan Traver, a Field of Flight board member.
Traver says Chris Darnell was more like family to them, being a regular staple for the annual event. This being the first deadly incident in the event’s history, he said it hits even harder.
“With anything that our performers do — the civilian air show, Shockwave, the military — they’re all putting themselves in harm’s way … as entertainment,” Traver said. “But there’s death and risk involved, and today, we saw the absolute worst that we ever dreamed that we want to see.”
“To watch something like that unfold, live, in front of your face is really … kind of sobering and traumatic,” said Lacic.
A procession honoring Chris Darnell soon followed, paying tribute to a man gone too soon.
“It’s an absolute tragedy. It’s going to be hard to get over this. It’s so … new, fresh, unreal. I don’t know. I can’t find the words out of my mouth. I just feel for the family,” said Traver.
He said the first band who performed Saturday night donated their check to the Darnells. Tips and donations are also being collected, and event staff will come up with a way to further help the family.
“We are so sad. Just one month ago Chris turned 40. He was so well loved by everyone who knew him. Chris so loved the Air Show business. He was ‘Living the Dream’ as he said,” wrote Chris Darnell’s father in the Jet Truck Facebook post.
The air show performances were cancelled for the rest of Saturday, but will return Sunday. Other Saturday evening activities including balloons will continue as scheduled. All activities planned for Sunday and Monday will resume as normal, officials said.
The crash and its exact cause is being investigated by Battle Creek police and firefighters.