Flags are at half-staff in and around Pensacola, as the city joins in the mourning for the first Blue Angel pilot to die in a crash in nine years.
Marine Captain Jeff Kuss died Thursday when his Number-6 FA-18 Hornet crashed just after takeoff during an afternoon practice session from the Smyrna, Tennessee airport near Nashville.
The other five pilots landed safely, and returned to NAS Pensacola Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, the Great Tennessee Air Show will go on as scheduled on Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s not dangerous; it’s just like racing cars, there’s just very little margin for error so you have to focus all the time on what you’re doing,” said retired military pilot Michael Kennedy, who will fly the World War II-era BT-13 Valiant in the show.
“Those of us who have doing this for years, we don’t do things differently,” said Kennedy. “At every show you’re find that we do things the same every time. Normally, we watch our airplanes so close that if we even think there’s a problem, we just don’t fly.’
The Blue Angels’ show scheduled for next weekend in Syracuse, New York is also canceled.
Kuss, a native of Durango, Colorado, joined the Blue Angels in September 2014. Thursday’s crash was the 26th fatality in the Blue Angel’s 70-year history — and the first since 2007, when Lt. Commander Kevin Davis’ jet crashed during a show in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Commander Jeanie Groenveld with the Naval Air Forces Command in San Diego says a team will go to the crash site, and look for the causal factors of the accident.
“Whether it be mechanical, pilot error, [or] environmental factors that are involved,” Groenveld said. “There are extensive investigations, there are pilots, engineers that are involved. The Safety Center is involved, and it takes quite a bit of time.”
Once that part of the investigation is complete – with help from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board — they will brief the rest of the naval aviation command.
A number of former Blue Angels now call Pensacola home. Among them is Pensacola Mayor Emeritus John Fogg. A Blue Angel in 1973-74, he remembers his first ride with the team.
“It scared me to death, frankly,” said Fogg. “I couldn’t believe how close they were. If I could have reached through the canopy when we were airborne, I could have grabbed ahold of the wingtip of the lead airplane. I’m thinking to myself, ‘How in the world could anybody do that?’”
Speaking in 2014 on WSRE’s “Conversations with Jeff Weeks,” Fogg recounted a mid-air collision between two of the Blues’ F-4 aircraft during an arrival practice in Lakehurst, New Jersey in July, 1973.
“I saw in my peripheral vision a flash on the right side, and then a little bit of movement of the right wingman, and then the lead airplane started to shudder,” Fogg remembered. “What had happened, was that the crew chief thought we were going to crash in the right wingman’s plane, and he initiated ejection.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Ronald Thomas was killed after ejecting from his aircraft.
Much is said about the Blue Angels being a close-knit family, especially in times of loss. During a welcome home ceremony in March aboard NAS Pensacola the new boss – Commander Ryan Bernacchi – spoke of the team’s families as essential to their success.
“It’s also very difficult because we spend so much time away from home; that because of you that we’re able to do it,” Bernacchi said. The support that you show, that the base shows, the Navy and Marine Corps show for us and our families, allows us to go out and do that job that means so much to us and we enjoy and love so much as well.”
During last November’s ceremony in which Bernacchi took command, he said that through their F/A-18 Hornets, the Blue Angels are truly about people.
“The people that are here today; the teams that have gone before us, this team, this family, this community,” said Bernacchi. “And the countless people – but especially the young ones – that we will get a chance to interact with and perhaps inspire in the coming years.”
The many questions about how the crash occurred have the highest priority at this time. Another question – far down on the list — is how the accident will affect the Blues’ remaining 2016 performance schedule in general, and the Pensacola Beach Air Show – scheduled for July 16 – in particular.