The Durango-La Plata County Airport was hot, dry, windy and solemn Friday afternoon as Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss’ family and his remains came home to Durango.
Kuss, 32, died in a plane crash June 2 while he was training with his unit, the elite Blue Angels, for an airshow in Tennessee. He was a Durango native, graduating from Durango High School in 2002 and Fort Lewis College in 2006.
“Here’s a guy who is a legitimate hero to the whole state,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said Friday afternoon. “He went to Fort Lewis. They told him, ‘Well, we’re not sure that’s the right school if you want to be a pilot.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. I want to go to Fort Lewis. I want to be a pilot. I want to do both.’ The guy clearly had focus.”
Hickenlooper ordered flags at all public buildings statewide to be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset Saturday to honor Kuss on the day of his service.
Kuss’ commanding officer, Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi, lauded his fellow pilot at a short news conference late Friday afternoon.
“Jeff Kuss was, without a doubt, one of the finest Americans this country can produce,” he said. “Jeff was a product of Durango, he is Durango’s son.”
Earlier Friday, a chartered 737 brought in Marines and the members of the Blue Angels, including the honor guard that greeted Kuss’ arrival in the Blue Angels’ C-130 Hercules transport plane. Normally known as “Fat Albert,” the C-130 was rechristened No. 6, Kuss’ flight designation, for this week.
His mother, Janet Kuss, stood in a hatch at the top of No. 6 with a U.S. flag as the plane taxied to the apron. As the plane came to a stop, the pilots simultaneously stopped the four propellers in the same cross-shape.
The color guard stood at attention until the family left. Christina Ferrarese Kuss, the captain’s wife and who is also from Durango, took time to thank members of the color guard and the plane’s pilots for bringing her husband and her family home.
Jeff Perino, who is married to Christina Kuss’ sister Nicole, was one of several people wearing a blue wristband remembering Capt. Jeff “Kooch” Kuss and No. 6.
The arrival was purposefully kept small and low key. But that didn’t stop people from honoring their passage as they left the airport.
“As a veteran, I want to honor him if I can,” said Bobby Phillips, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He drove from Farmington to the main terminal at the airport and plans to return Saturday for the motorcade route. “As long as they have served their country, they deserve respect.”
Poles around the airport were decorated with blue and yellow ribbons – the colors of both the Blue Angels and Fort Lewis College – and American flags.
Periodically along the way, an individual or group stood silently by the road, including a group of veterans from Bayfield “with one Durangoan sprinkled in,” he said.
One more event has been added to the calendar of the weekend’s remembrances of Jeff Kuss – one that residents can participate in from home. Grammy-winning sound engineer Tom MacCluskey, 84, who was a Navy pilot and announced for the Blue Angels during the 1950s, will dedicate part of his Sunday morning Mostly Classical radio show from 9 a.m. to noon on KDUR-FM public radio (91.9 and 93.9) to Kuss, particularly during the 10 a.m. hour.
MotorcadeResidents can show their support for the family and respect for Kuss’ service along the route of the motorcade, which will begin near Sunshine Gardens and proceed west on 32nd Street to Main Avenue and through downtown before heading along Camino del Rio and on to Greenmount Cemetery.
Only friends and family are invited to the cemetery service as well as military members who will ride in the motorcade. The westbound lane of County Road 251 between 32nd Street and County Road 250 will be closed from 9:30 to 11 a.m. for staging for the motorcade. The eastbound lane will remain open.
“If Durango friends or family happened to be left off or an error was made on the list,” Kuss’ mother, Janet Kuss, said, “please don’t take offense and know it’s tough to plan this.”
Residents can line the entire route, and small U.S. flags were distributed for people to wave, or they can wave blue and yellow ribbons or tie them along the route. Signs honoring Kuss and his service and his family also can be displayed.
The Blue Angel press office issued this response to a request for motorcade etiquette:
“You should remove your hat (if you are wearing one) and stand at attention in respectful silence until the escort passes. Uniformed U.S. service members wearing their cover (hat) would salute.”
Drivers should expect delays and some brief road closures as the motorcade travels through downtown. Rolling road closures will begin at 11 a.m. for side streets and southbound traffic on Main. Northbound traffic will be stopped at the intersection of Camino del Rio and College Drive, and all directions will be stopped at Camino del Rio and Ninth Street as the motorcade turns to go up to the cemetery.
Multiple law enforcement agencies will manage traffic.
The serviceThe service will be private, and Greenmount Cemetery will be closed during the service, which is expected to last from noon to 1 p.m.
Residents may hear the rifle volley and see jets fly over town and the cemetery in the Missing Man Formation. Capt. Clay Groover of Beaufort Marine Air Station in South Carolina said the Checkerboards were sending two F/A-18 Hornets. The flyover will be led by a pilot Kuss served in combat with from the USS Harry S. Truman in Afghanistan and will include F-18s with aviators from Carrier Group 8 and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312, Kuss’ unit prior to joining the Blue Angels in 2014.
“Pilots fly this magnificent and solemn aerial maneuver for presidents, potentates, astronauts and other pilots of note as a tribute and showing of love, respect and camaraderie for a brother pilot,” the Blue Angels said in a post from the website Old Glory Traditions. “This maneuver is sometimes flown with the wingman spiraling off, or it is flown consistently with a hole where another should be.”
Both the salute and flyover should occur around 1 p.m. The Rim at FLC is a good viewing point for the Missing Man Formation.
The receptionFrom 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, friends and family are invited to a reception in front of the Student Union at FLC.
firstname.lastname@example.org This article has been updated to correct information about the rifle volley. It was incorrectly called a 21-gun salute in an earlier version.This article has been updated to correct information about the rifle volley. It was incorrectly called a 21-gun salute in an earlier version.