The Navy’s Blue Angels stunt team will stop performing the aerial maneuver that a pilot attempted during a fatal crash in June, and the team will implement a variety of other changes after an investigation found the pilot’s errors caused the crash, Navy officials said Thursday.
Marine Capt. Jeffrey Kuss, 32, was killed June 2 near Smyrna, Tenn., while preparing for the Great Tennessee Air Show. He crashed his F/A-18 Hornet after a rapid climb while attempting what aviators call the “Split S,” in which a plane turns in the opposite horizontal direction from which it came after a swooping dive, according to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act.
“In layman’s terms, he transitioned from the high performance climb to the Split S too low and too fast, and by not deselecting his afterburners during the maneuver, he continued to accelerate,” according to the Navy investigation’s report. “The net effect of these deviations was that the aircraft was simply too low and too fast to avoid impacting the ground.”
Kuss attempted to eject from the aircraft at the last second but did not do so in time, the report said. His cause of death was listed as blunt-force trauma.
The mistake killed a highly trained and well-respected pilot. Partial cloud cover and possible fatigue on Kuss’s part were listed as contributing factors, with investigating officers noting that he did not sign a required “A-sheet” to formally accept his aircraft that day, turn on his transponder in the plane or turn off the afterburner despite saying over the radio he would do so, according to Navy documents.
Vice Adm. Michael Shoemaker, commander of Naval Air Forces Pacific, reviewed the initial investigation and called for several immediate changes in a memo dated Wednesday. A memo released to The Washington Post said they include eliminating the Split-S from operations until further notice, putting in place dive recovery rules that have specific airspeed limitations, requiring the Blue Angels to use a greater safety buffer between aircraft and the ground for the remainder of the season, and ordering pilots to make positive radio confirmation with instruments that measure altitude prior to takeoff.
Shoemaker also required several steps at the end of the current flight season for the Blue Angels, including that a safety team review the training, maintenance and culture of the squadron, reviewing all aerial maneuvers with an emphasis on increasing safety, adjusting future show schedules to allow more rest for pilots and support staff.
Shoemaker wrote that Kuss represented “the best and brightest of Naval Aviation” and demonstrated professionalism, expertise and a love for flying that made him a valued member of the Blue Angels and the Marine Corps. But Shoemaker said that standard operating procedures must be followed.
The admiral said there is “tremendous” pressure on Blue Angels pilots to fly even when they are not up to it because there are no substitutes for them in the squadron.
“Fundamentally, we will create an environment for the [Blue Angels] where each pilot feels empowered to speak up before or during a brief if they are not physically or mentally prepared to fly,” Shoemaker said. “We have well-established processes in the fleet for an aviator to ‘take a knee’ and tell the operations officer that he/she is not ready for a flight, and that freedom must be extended to the Blue Angels as well.”