Blue Angels F/A-18 plane crashes while practicing for air show in Tennessee

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Friday, June 3, 2016
(Angela Adams/Facebook)
Angela Adams/Facebook

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 acrobatics team in 2014 and accumulated more than 1,400 flight hours.

Harry Gill, the town manager in Smyrna just outside Nashville, said Thursday that the 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.

This is 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 following a flyover for the Air Force Academy graduation where President Barack Obama spoke. That pilot ejected safely into a field.

Kuss was a native of Durango, Colorado, and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marines in 2006. He had previously served in Afghanistan before joining the Blue Angels.

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 manger at Auto Masters of Smyrna nearby, was standing on the business' 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 grew up going to the airshows. His first love was aviation, he said, and when he was a kid his mother used to take him to see the planes. Now a father himself, he planned to take his own children, ages 5 and 6, to the show on Saturday morning.

He watched one plane coming out of a loop and look 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."