A U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilot from Durango was killed in a fiery jet crash near Smyrna, Tennessee, on Thursday afternoon.
According to an unnamed U.S. official who confirmed to the Associated Press, Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, 32, was killed in the 3 p.m. crash. The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team, were preparing to perform in the Great Tennessee Air Show this weekend. The Blue Angels team has been grounded and will not participate in the show, the Naval Air Forces said after the crash.
U.S. Navy Commander Jeannie Groeneveld, a spokeswoman for the Naval Air Forces, said policy requires a 24-hour wait after notifying next-of-kin before releasing the name and side number of the aircraft, so she would not confirm Kuss as the victim.
She said the jet, an F/A-18 Hornet, was taking off for a practice flight when it went down, and the victim was the sole occupant.
“There were five other aircrafts in flight, but they landed safely,” Groeneveld said.
A fireball and thick black plume of smoke from the crash could be seen just beyond the runway at Smyrna Airport and from Interstate 24 in the minutes after the crash, The Tennessean reported. First responders reported that some live power lines came down in the crash and caused some additional fires and power outages in the area. The crash occurred about two miles from the airport and it was not close to any homes, officials said.
There was no collision involved in the crash and the cause is under investigation. The results may not be available for months, Groeneveld said.
Kuss, a Durango native and graduate of Durango High School, where he played tennis. He was a graduate of Fort Lewis College, and joined the Blue Angels team in September 2014.
He registered more than 1,400 flight hours and 175 carrier-arrested landings, and received flight training at Naval Air Stations in Pensacola and Corpus Christi.
“He grew up in Durango, and his family was so proud of him. He made Durango proud,” said Mike Elliott, a family friend. “He was a talented young man, and I’m so sorry at the news.”
Late Thursday afternoon, Fort Lewis College posted on its Facebook page: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our own, alum Captain Jeff Kuss. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.”
Also, FLC President Dene Thomas relayed condolences on Twitter, “This is a difficult day for the Fort Lewis College family. Our thoughts are with Captain Kuss’ family and friends.”
Kuss received the Strike Flight Air Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, though in February, he received one of the highest honors a Coloradoan can have, by his standards: he was one of six pilots to sweep over Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, just before kickoff at the 2016 Superbowl, in which the Broncos were victorious.
Since he was a toddler, Kuss loved jets, and he learned to fly in Durango before he was 16 years old.
He is survived by his wife, Christina, and two young children, as well as his parents, Michael and Janet Kuss of Durango.
His family could not be reached for comment.
“The Navy is deeply saddened by the loss of this service member,” the Naval Air Forces said in a statement. “We extend our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the family of the pilot, and those he served with.”