Following a rare, fatal crash during a practice flight Thursday, the Navy's elite flight demonstration squadron has canceled its appearance at the Great Tennessee Air Show and suspended flying until further notice, a Naval Air Forces spokeswoman has confirmed to Navy Times.
The pause doesn't mean the Blue Angels won't resume its air show season schedule in the coming weeks, Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld said, but the team is taking a break to process the mishap.
For now, she added, the squadron's pilots, crew and support staff are planning to fly home to Pensacola, Florida, to regroup.
"At this time we don't know how the season will be impacted," Groeneveld said. "There are only six pilots in the demonstration. No. 7 is the narrator and is slated to fly as part of the demonstration team next season."
Thursday's crash, which occurred just after takeoff, took the life of Marine Corps Capt. Jeff Kuss, the Blues' No. 6 pilot, a U.S. official told The Associated Press.
"The Navy and Marine Corps aviation team is grieving the loss of one of our own," said Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, the head of Naval Air Forces, in a Friday release. "Capt. Kuss was an incredible Marine, husband and father, and an inspiration to so many; his loss will be felt across the nation. Being a Naval Aviator is an inherently dangerous profession and our aviators knowingly accept that risk in service to their nation; but it still pains us greatly when we experience the untimely loss of a valued aviator and shipmate. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family, friends, fellow Marines, and Blue Angels teammates."
According to his official Blue Angels biography, Kuss joined the elite acrobatics team in 2014 and accumulated more than 1,400 flight hours. At a May 14 air show, Kuss was the opposing solo pilot and flew an extremely low-altitude maneuver that the Navy called a "Low Transition/Split S on Takeoff" in a photo caption.
"We appreciate all the thoughts and prayers of the community here in Smyrna as well as throughout the world," the team said in a Friday release. "Thank you for understanding that we need time to grieve this tremendous loss, and to work with investigators in determining the cause of this mishap."
Kuss' jet crashed at 3:01 p.m. after taking off from the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport in Smyrna, Tennessee. Bystanders described a plume of black smoke from the site, according to The Tennessean newspaper. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
"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 crash was the first in almost a decade for the Blues, who last lost a pilot to disorientation at the 2007 Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort Air Show in South Carolina. Three years earlier, a pilot ejected after hitting the water off of Perdido Key, Florida.