Blue Angels pilot dies in crash; Dayton air show impact unknown

Vectren Dayton Air Show officials are waiting to see if the deadly crash of a Blue Angels F/A-18 jet in Tennessee might cancel the team’s appearance at the upcoming show at Dayton International Airport.

Air Show Executive Director Terry Grevious said Thursday it was “hard to say until we hear from them” about what impact the crash would have on the June 18-19 show. The Navy confirmed a pilot was killed in the jet accident during a practice air show in Smyrna, Tenn. The team will not perform in Tennessee this weekend.

“The fact that they did have an incident does potentially put the team in jeopardy for the Dayton show,” Grevious said.

The air show will continue if the Blue Angels show season is put on hold and the team is unable to fly in Dayton, he said.

The Navy did not expect a decision on the team flying at the Dayton Air Show until next week, said Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld, a Naval Air Force Command spokeswoman in San Diego.

“We should know by mid next week what the plan is for the future, but we don’t know at this time,” she said late Thursday.

In a highly unusual coincidence, an Air Force Thunderbirds jet also crashed Thursday after flying over Air Force Academy graduation ceremonies in Colorado Springs, Colo., where President Barack Obama gave the commencement address.

The Air Force pilot ejected safely above a field and no one on the ground was injured, reports say.

The Navy said the Blue Angels pilot was beginning to take off during an afternoon practice session when the crash in Tennessee happened. The Associated Press identified the F/A-18 aviator as Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, a Durango, Colo., native who flew the No. 6 jet and was one of two solo demonstration pilots. He was a U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School graduate of “Top Gun” and served a tour of duty on an aircraft carrier in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Groeneveld said an investigation into the mishap has started. Five other Blue Angels jets landed safely moments after the crash, she said.

“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.

Six F/A-18 Hornet jets perform in the Blue Angels acrobatic demonstrations across the country. Based in Pensacola, Fla., the flight team last performed in Dayton in 2014.

Last year, the Thunderbirds performed in Dayton in six F-16 Fighting Falcon jets. Both the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels often alternate years in Dayton appearances.

“It’s just really unbelievable that both teams had an incident on the same day,” Grevious said.

Historically, the teams have temporarily left the air show circuit to review safety procedures after a crash, he noted. “It’s not unusual for them to be off the circuit for two to three weeks or perhaps longer if it was a more serious incident,” he said.

Dale Sawyer, an area aviation enthusiast who was watching from the Smyrna airport, said the six Blue Angel jets had just begun their practice when the crash happened.

One pilot began flying straight up in the air for a solo stunt, but when the pilot looped back toward the ground, the jet did not pull out of the loop in time and crashed, Sawyer told the Los Angeles Times.

Retired teacher Brenda Lewis and her 21-year-old grandson had spent much of the day in her back yard 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 air show. “Then something tragic like this happens. My heart is just broken.”

As onlookers waited to be let out of the airport, Sawyer said a staff member who appeared to be with the Navy team drove up to the gate and asked the gate attendant if they had a good contact for a chaplain, Sawyer said.

The F/A-18 is a twin-engine fighter attack jet made by Boeing Co. that has been a fixture on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers since 1983.

There have been at least four crashes and five deaths involving Blue Angels pilots since 1980, according to a search of news reports. The most recent fatal crash came in 2007 in South Carolina, when a 32-year-old Blue Angels pilot crashed into a residential neighborhood in one of his first shows with the team.

The Associated Press and Tribune News Service contributed to this story.