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Air Force Thunderbirds return to flying after crash, but air show schedule uncertain

The U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the “Thunderbirds,” perform at the Puerto Rico Air Show in April 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)
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The Air Force’s Thunderbirds returned to flying Tuesday following a crash last week in Colorado, but their participation in several future air shows is either in question or canceled, Air Force officials said.

The squadron, known formally as the Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, will no longer perform this weekend in Rhode Island, and the status of their scheduled appearance in Ocean City, Md., on June 18-19 is in doubt, Air Force officials said. The team performs about once a week from March through mid-November, serving as an ambassador and recruiter for the Air Force.

“Today is the Team’s first opportunity to return to fly after our stand down,” the Thunderbirds unit said in a tweet. “As we begin practicing again, our show season is still on hold.”

The decisions follow a bizarre day June 2 in which jets with the Thunderbirds and the Navy’s demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, both crashed.

In the Air Force case, a Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcon that had just flown over the commencement at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was able to put the plane down in an open field south of Colorado Springs Airport and eject without any serious injuries.

In the Navy case, Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss crashed his plane in Smyrna, Tenn., and did not survive. He was practicing in advance of an air show planned last weekend.

Maj. Alex Turner, who was involved in the Colorado Springs crash, has not yet been cleared to fly again, but other members of the Thunderbirds squadron are, said Ann Stefanek, a service spokeswoman. The unit has headquarters at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, and trains regularly for their performances.

The commanding officer of the Blue Angels, Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi, said in a statement released Tuesday that the remains of Kuss have been returned to the squadron’s headquarters at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, aboard the unit’s C-30, known as “Fat Albert.” The aircraft will be escorted by a Blue Angels jet flown by Navy Lt. Ryan Chamberlain.

“Tonight, I hope you will join the team in saluting him as he flies that special route home to Pensacola again,” Bernacchi said. “As Jeff’s family and the Blue Angels have navigated this immensely difficult time, a constant gift has been the unwavering support from our hometown of Pensacola, and from all across this great nation.”