A Navy investigation into the fatal crash of a Blue Angels jet in June cites pilot error as the cause, with weather and fatigue as contributing factors.
The probe, released Thursday, ruled out mechanical failure for the accident involving the Blue Angels F/A-18C jet.
The pilot killed was Capt. Jeff Kuss, 32, a Marine Corps officer from Colorado.
The June 2 crash happened as the Navy’s elite air performance team was practicing for the Great Tennessee Air Show. Kuss’ jet — Blue Angels No. 6 — crashed after takeoff about two miles from the runway.
Kuss had attempted to do a “split S” maneuver after takeoff but was too low and going too fast for the procedure, according to the Navy judge advocate general investigation.
The seasoned pilot tried to go from a high-performance climb into the “split S,” but he failed to turn off his afterburners and continued to accelerate. Kuss was flying the “opposing solo” position in the six-aircraft pattern.
“Although he might have been able to recover the aircraft after the initial deviations, Captain Kuss did not attempt any type of dive recovery procedure and he unsuccessfully ejected from the aircraft too late,” the report concluded. “Although Captain Kuss was a highly trained and respected naval aviator, his deviations from standard operating procedures in executing the Split S maneuver resulted in a fatal loss of situational awareness.”
After Kuss’ death, the Navy’s “Air Boss” has ordered the “split S” to be taken out of the show for the time being.
In 2004, a new Blue Angels pilot crashed his plane attempting the same maneuver. That pilot ejected safely, but the jet was destroyed.
In fact, the last three Blue Angel crashes — Kuss and those in 2007 and 2004 — were experienced by the Blue Angel No. 6 pilot. Two of those were fatal.
In another change, future Blue Angels performance schedules will be altered to allow for more pilot rest.
“The Blue Angels’ mission is always subject to some degree of risk,” wrote Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of naval air forces in Coronado, in endorsing the findings. “Our procedures to maximize safety and minimize risk must be robustly implemented and methodically reviewed.”
Shoemaker, an F/A-18 pilot himself, directed that Blue Angels pilots should feel allowed to “take a knee” and tell the squadron that he or she isn’t ready for a flight — like pilots elsewhere in the fleet do.
“If one of the Blue Angels pilots is not ready, there are no other pilots who can readily cover their position for a show,” Shoemaker wrote. “The pressure to not let the team down and miss a performance, although unspoken, is tremendous.”
There were signs that Kuss was tired that day.
He failed to sign the sheet to accept his aircraft and didn’t turn on his transponder once in the cockpit, according to the report, which called these omissions out of character for the pilot who had more than 1,600 flight hours and no prior mishaps.
Also, the Marine made the mistake of failing to “retard the throttle out of afterburner,” which means he didn’t take power off the aircraft after a massive acceleration — despite calling out that action over his radio.
The Blue Angels had just returned from a 10-day tour that included three air shows, the report said. Kuss had two days off to relax before reporting back to work June 1.
Weather also may have played a role.
Scattered clouds at 3,000 feet may have prompted Kuss to start the “split S” move too low. His plane was flying at nearly 3,200 feet, but the minimum altitude for the “split S” is 3,500.
Kuss was clearly concerned about the clouds: He asked a fellow pilot before takeoff if he could attempt the high-performance climb with clouds in the flight path, the report said.
“Air speed higher than normal for the maneuver and the lower starting altitude limited decision-making opportunities and removed margins of error for corrections to the flight trajectory,” the report concluded.
Shoemaker reversed the decision of the Navy’s chief of naval air training, who had offered his opinion in the report that weather didn’t contribute to the crash.
The Marine officer attempted to eject, and his ejection seat did propel him out of the jet. But the process was interrupted, most likely by tree or aircraft debris, the report said.
Then, Kuss’ parachute was instantly engulfed in fire from the explosion of the jet crashing.
Kuss, a veteran of the Navy’s Top Gun school and the war in Afghanistan, joined the Blue Angels in September 2014.
During the Navy flying team’s 2015 appearance in San Diego, Kuss performed as the team’s narrator, describing the precision passes that the blue-and-gold F/A-18s made during the Miramar Air Show.