Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss died in Tennessee crash.
Mike Brantley
Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss died in Tennessee crash.

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Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss was identified as pilot who died in Tennessee crash

He joined the elite U.S. Navy Blue Angels in September 2014

Kuss was in his first year with Blue Angels performing squads

CNN —  

Capt. Jeff Kuss of the elite U.S. Navy Blue Angels was remembered Friday as “an incredible husband, father, son, Marine and teammate.”

The pilot died when his plane went down about 3 p.m. Thursday during the beginning of practice for a weekend show in Smyrna, Tennessee.

Blue Angels Flight Leader and Commanding Officer Ryan Bernacchi called his teammate “truly one of the absolute finest Americans this country can produce.”

“We lost an aviator that believed so deeply in the Blue Angels’ mission of inspiring others and representing the Navy and Marine Corps, our citizens and our great country,” Bernacchi told reporters Friday.

“In doing so, he embodied and inspired in all of us an incredible spirit of compassion, courage and resiliency. And those characteristics are what the Blue Angels will harness as we move forward.”

Kuss, a native of Durango, Colorado, joined the Blue Angels in September 2014 and had accumulated more than 1,400 flight hours and 175 landings on aircraft carriers, according to the Blue Angels website. He was in his first year on Blue Angels squads flying at air shows and other public performances”

The pilot reported to flight training in July 2007 after earning a bachelor of arts degree in economics from Fort Lewis College in Durango.

At the time of his death Thursday in the crash of his F/A-18 fighter jet, his decorations included the Strike Flight Air Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, according to the website.

“Thank you for understanding we need time to grieve this tremendous loss,” Bernacchi said.

On Friday, John Black, executive director of the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority, said the Great Tennessee Air Show would go forward.

“We consulted with everyone involved in the decision to move forward with the show,” Black said. “We have kids here. That is the reason we do the show. It is the next generation we want to inspire.”

CNN affiliate WKRN reported that Kuss’ crew would not participate. They were expected to return to their base in Pensacola, Florida.

Relatives said Kuss had wanted to fly since he was a child, WKRN reported.

The crash occurred just after the pilot took off, the Navy said. The plane went down about 2 miles from the Smyrna airport.

Witness Becca Burgess told WKRN that the jet seemed low.

“I looked up and saw it coming down, and I thought maybe they were doing dips,” Burgess told the Nashville station. “Then I saw a huge ball of orange fire, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he’s crashed. I cried. I mean, the first thought was fear for the pilot.”

The Blue Angels, one of the nation’s most prestigious teams of flying aerobats, had its reputation sullied by scandal two years ago when a Navy study reported it was riddled with sexual harassment and chauvinistic behavior.

CNN’s Ray Sanchez and Steve Almasy contributed to this report