Blount County veteran recalls surviving Thunderbirds crash

Former Thunderbirds pilot Dan McCoy

MARYVILLE (WATE) – People around the country and in East Tennessee are mourning the death of Blue Angels pilot Capt. Jeff Kuss who was killed Thursday in a crash in Smyrna, Tennessee, not the least of whom was a former Air Force Thunderbird pilot who survived a similar crash many years ago.

Dan McCoy
Dan McCoy

Nearly 40 years ago U.S. Air Force veteran Dan McCoy was new to the ranks of the Thunderbirds.

“It’s demanding. It’s enjoyable. Flying is the easy part,” he said.

McCoy says his time was cut short.

“The Thunderbirds had eight crashes in a period of five years and out of the eight, I was the only one that survived.”

The crash happened during a practice air show in January 1978. McCoy says the pilots didn’t go to their normal site in Nevada, but closer to the mountains to run through a low altitude show.

“I can remember the maneuver, wanting to make a call and the next thing I can remember is being awake or alert enough in the hospital in downtown Las Vegas,” said McCoy.

That day and the following hours are lost. McCoy says he felt lucky once he learned more.

“The airplane just was sheared off, the ejection seat. Canopy imploded and threw me out, like a drogue shoot,” he said.

All those memories playing into why Friday is such a somber day. “With two major crashes in one day, it’s just unheard of,” said McCoy.

He says being a part of elite crews like the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds is dangerous.

“Accidents are part of it. It’ll happen at some time,” he added.

That is why McCoy is holding Captain Kuss’ family close to his heart.

“You don’t expect to hear things like that and when you do, it takes your breath away.”

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Veterans heartbroken over Capt. Kuss’ crash

Hearing the news, many veterans in Blount County say they’re heartbroken, shocked, and praying for Captain Kuss’ family and those who were part of his crew.

“When they were practicing they flew over our War Dead Memorial. We saw them here, we heard their engines,” said Nathan Weinbaum, Director of Blount County Veterans Affairs.

Weinbaum says those moments from just a few weeks ago are playing over and over in people’s minds.

“I did get to meet a few of the pilots. They were so generous, so outgoing, so humble, hardworking individuals. They’re the best of the best and I was so grateful just to shake their hands.”

There was somberness Friday at McGhee Tyson Air Base hearing of the tragic death of Capt. Kuss.

“It was very shocking and definitely upsetting. Any time this happens it’s very upsetting, the fact that they were just here last month in our community,” said Master Sergeant Jon LaDue with the U.S. Air National Guard.

Those who have served our country say there’s heartache because the military is family.

“At the end of the day we’re one team, one fight. We definitely felt that here, even though it’s Navy Blue Angels and they’re here on Air National Guard base, we loved their presence,” said Master Sergeant LaDue.

As all of us grieve, many are thankful Capt. Kuss was here in East Tennessee and thankful for his outreach.

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