SMYRNA, Tenn. (AP) – A Blue Angels F/A-18 fighter jet crashed Thursday near Nashville, Tennessee, killing the pilot just days before a weekend air show performance, officials said.
A U.S. official said the pilot was Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. According to his official Blue Angels biography, Kuss joined the elite aerobatics team in 2014 and accumulated more than 1,400 flight hours.
It was the second fighter jet crash of the day for the military’s elite fighter jet performance teams. A member of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds crashed in Colorado after a flyover for the Air Force Academy graduation where President Barack Obama spoke. That pilot ejected safely into a field.
Harry Gill, the town manager in Smyrna just outside Nashville, said Thursday that the Blue Angels pilot was the only casualty and no civilians on the ground were hurt.
The Navy said in a news release that the pilot was beginning to take off during an afternoon practice session when the crash happened. Five other F/A-18 jets landed safely moments after the crash.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the Blue Angels after this tragic loss. I know that the Navy and Marine Corps Team is with me. We will investigate this accident fully and do all we can to prevent similar incidents in the future,” Adm. John Richardson, the Navy’s top officer, said in a Facebook post. The team is based at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
The Blue Angels will not participate in the weekend air show, the Navy said in a news release.
The Great Tennessee Air Show will go on as scheduled, though, Smyrna airport Executive Director John Black said in a news release.
“After close consultation with the Blue Angels, regulatory officials and the performers, we have made the decision to carry on with this weekend’s show,” Black said.
Kuss was a native of Durango, Colorado, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines in 2006. He had previously served in Afghanistan before joining the Blue Angels.
“It’s hard to put into words right now, but it’s beautiful that a person can live and die engaged in their life’s pursuits,” said his grandfather, Dolph Kuss, reached at his home in Durango. “This was his dream since he was a child, to be an aviator, a flier.”
He choked back tears and said he was struggling to gather his thoughts.
“It’s hard to celebrate someone’s life in this way,” he said. “It is certainly a shock. Everything in life has its dangers, I guess.”
Kuss was married with two young children, his grandfather said.
In Smyrna, retired teacher Brenda Lewis and her 21-year-old grandson had spent much of the day in her backyard near the airport watching the Blue Angels fly overhead.
She’s seen them many times before.
“But this afternoon, something made me really want to watch them,” she said. “They looked like they were having such a good time playing up there.”
She went inside to bake a chocolate pie when she heard a loud boom. She didn’t think too much of it at first because the airport is just on the other side of her tree line and she’s used to loud noises.
Then she heard sirens and went around the corner. She saw the smoke rising and police cars arriving. She went inside because she didn’t want to see any more.
“I’m always so fascinated by them, the anticipation of it all,” she said of their airshow. “Then something tragic like this happens. My heart is just broken.”
Phil Dennis, a manager at Auto Masters of Smyrna nearby, was standing on the business’s back deck with another employee watching the planes practice above.
“I’m still shaken up about it,” he said, hours after watching the plane go down.
Dennis watched one plane coming out of a loop that looked like it was flying too fast toward the ground. It disappeared behind a tree line, and he said his heart stopped. He said he could hear the engines roaring; then all he heard was silence.
“I was so worried. I thought maybe he’d have time to recover,” Dennis said. “But he didn’t.”
A massive fireball erupted from behind the trees.
“I felt it down my spine,” he said. “It shocked me; I paused for a minute and questioned whether it really happened. I thought it can’t be real.”
Thomas Bucher, 32, of Smyrna, lives about 2,000 feet from the crash site and was outside doing yard work Thursday afternoon. He had noticed the jets practicing near the airport.
“That particular Blue Angel, I saw him doing some barrel rolls looked like in the air,” he said “He was flying awful low, I thought, and he kind of got below the tree line over there. And it looked like he was on his belly going down, and that’s the end of it.”
After the plane went below the tree line, Bucher said he saw a cloud of smoke come up over the tree line.
“I was hoping that he had ejected from his seat, but with him being that low … My dad is in aviation; I knew there was no way he could have ejected from that height and survived.”
He said he thinks the air show on Saturday and Sunday where the Blue Angels were scheduled to appear should go on as planned.
“Maybe have a moment of silence for him and for what happened, but I think they should go on with it.”
Bucher said it was not raining when the plane crashed but there was a short rainstorm about 10 minutes after the crash.
___Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Claire Galofaro contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.