SMYRNA, Tenn. — The pilot of a Blue Angels jet was killed Thursday during practice for a weekend air show, hours after a Thunderbirds F-16 crashed after a flyover at the U.S. Air Force Academy commencement ceremony attended by President Barack Obama, officials said.
The Navy said the Blue Angels pilot, identified by The Associated Press as Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss of Durango, died from injuries suffered in the crash in Tennessee. Witness Becca Burgess told WKRN that the Blue Angels jet seemed low.
“I looked up and saw it coming down, and I thought maybe they were doing dips,” Burgess told the Nashville, Tenn., station. “Then I saw a huge ball of orange fire, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he’s crashed. I cried. I mean, the first thought was fear for the pilot.”
The crash occurred at the beginning of practice, just after the pilot took off, the Navy said. The plane went down about two miles from the Smyrna airport.
None of the five other Blue Angels jets was involved in the incident.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the Blue Angels after this tragic loss,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said. “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.”
According to his biography, Kuss graduated from Durango High School in 2002 and attended Fort Lewis College in Durango. He accumulated 1,400 flight hours, performed 175 aircraft carrier landings and joined the Blue Angels in September 2014.
There was an outpouring of support for Kuss’ family and the Blue Angels after news of the crash. Kuss has a wife and two children.
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels F/A-18 crashed while preparing for The Great Tennessee Air Show, Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Jeanette Groeneveld said.
Smyrna Fire Chief Bill Culbertson said there were already units on the flight line so his crews were able to respond to the crash scene within minutes.
The crash occurred near a former plantation called the Sam Davis Home that is a tourist site, and it also wasn’t far from an apartment complex, Culbertson said.
Robert Hendrix told WKRN he was at the swimming pool at the apartments.
“They were doing their stunts and they were twirling,” he said. “Well, when they split, the one on the right, he done about four or five twirls right, and he was coming by to go back to the airport. All of a sudden, he hit, and the next thing you seen was flames. We were so close you could feel the heat from the flames.”
The crash was the first for the Blue Angels since April 2007, when Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis was killed when he crashed during an air show at a Marine Corps air station in Beaufort, S.C.