After a thorough investigation, the U.S. Navy released the final mishap report for the crash involving Blue Angel No. 6 that occurred in Smyrna, Tenn. on June 2, 2016. Investigators determined that it was due to pilot error.
According to the report, the pilot, Capt. Jeff Kuss, took off from the Smyrna Airport as part of the team’s afternoon practice session. Kuss, flying as what the Blue Angels call the “opposing solo,” attempted to execute a “high performance climb,” which involves a high G pull into the vertical using the jet’s afterburners followed by a “Split S” back toward the ground.
Kuss started his dive from too low an altitude, the report states, and he failed to take any corrective action as he hurtled straight down at full power. Just before the F/A-18C hit the trees, Kuss pulled the ejection handle, but it was too late. By the time the canopy blew off and his seat rocketed away he’d traveled too far to allow the chute to open. He died from what the report described as “blunt force trauma” after hitting the ground.
Although the report reveals that Blue Angels 5 and 6 had a brief discussion about a cloud deck above the departure end of the airport, the investigators dismissed weather as a causal factor. The report also states that Kuss was fully qualified for the flight and in good health and that the Hornet he was piloting had no mechanical problems.
The Navy’s report also reveals that the Blue Angels have a history of “Split S” mishaps. In 2004, Blue Angel No. 6 — new to the team at the time — hit the ground after failing to properly execute the maneuver during a practice session. The pilot survived the crash, but the aircraft was a total loss.
The U.S. Marine Corps also had a Hornet crash in 1988 when the wing commander at MCAS El Toro — who flew the air show routine even though he was not fully qualified to do so — attempted a Split S below the proper altitude. The pilot, a colonel, survived, but sustained massive injuries to both of his feet and his face.
Watch the video of the USMC El Toro Split S mishap below:
The Blue Angels skipped the next three shows following Kuss’ death. Cdr. Frank Weisser, who’d been part of the team from 2007-2010, was brought back to assume Opposing Solo duties for the balance of the 2016 season.
Kuss is the twenty-seventh Naval Aviator to die while flying with the Blue Angels either during practice or actual shows in front of crowds. The last fatality before him was Lcdr. Kevin Davis, who was lost in a crash just outside of MCAS Beaufort, SC after blacking out from high G forces and losing control of his airplane and hitting the ground while attempting to rendezvous with the rest of the diamond formation.