One year later: Honoring the life of Blue Angels pilot Capt. Jeff Kuss

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – One year ago, the Blue Angels graced the skies of Nashville. The Navy’s elite flight team was building anticipation as they prepared for the Great Tennessee Air Show.

“They only do so many shows a year, and we’re pretty lucky to get them,” said John Black, the director of the Smyrna Airport.

But in a split second, everything changed. At age 32, Marine Captain Jeff Kuss, a husband and father of two, was gone.

“It was a magnificent flight, and then it turned into a horrible day,” said Sean Tucker, an airshow performer.

Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss (Courtesy: WKRG)

Anchor Samantha Fisher had the extraordinary experience of riding in Blue Angels jet No. 7 just the day before. Her job was to report on what it was like to fly in an F-18 and build excitement ahead of the air show.

What none of us could have known was the story was about to change in a dramatic and devastating way.

It was an event that changed the city of Smyrna, which is now in the process of building a permanent memorial to Captain Kuss with a Blue Angels jet emblazoned with the number of his own—No. 6.

That jet will no longer take to the skies but will forever honor a man who did. It arrived in Smyrna on May 25 and was greeted by hundreds of residents honoring the fallen pilot.

Among the crowd was a former Navy admiral.

“I just have a real closeness with Smyrna and aviation and what this community stands for,” said Ret. Rear Admiral Jimmy Taylor.

Overseeing flight operations at several naval air stations, including Pensacola, Admiral Taylor has a special love for the Blue Angels.

“The fact that I’ve flown with the Blues and I’ve flown F-18s and I’ve flown air shows with them all over the world, it kind of makes my heart flutter a little bit,” he told News 2.

It was there on Pensacola Beach last year that Admiral Taylor watched the Blues fly out and head to Tennessee for the air show in June.

That was the beginning, marked by excitement and anticipation, as the Navy’s best returned to a place where they are celebrated and embraced.

“I think the people of Smyrna feel so much like the Blue Angels are a part of the community,” said Smyrna Mayor Mary Esther Reed.

“The love this town has for the Blue Angels goes back to the 1970s. We say they don’t live here, they aren’t stationed here, but they are a part of this community,” Reed continued.

(Photo: WKRN)

Thursday morning, June 2, 2016, the Blues are in town. It’s a sentimental sight as the renowned flight team was also there for the first year of the Great Tennessee Air Show in 1969.

Principal Clark Harrell at Stewarts Creek High School watches from his house.

“It becomes a grand event for the whole city. It’s a time that literally living here I would sit on my deck and watch a lot of it,” he said.

And the owner of a local restaurant was surprised with a personal visit.

“It was one day before the air show that the pilots came to my restaurant with beautiful uniforms,” said Shiva Karimy with Fat Mo’s.

“I asked for some pictures and they promised to get me pictures the next day,” she said.

The Blue Angels team made good on that promise but under unthinkable circumstances.

The next few hours would change everything.

The pilots of jets No. 5 and 6 have a special relationship.

“And they’re the ones when you’re watching. The demonstrations, the solos, are often doing something together by themselves while the rest of the team is out of the picture,” said John Black, director of the Smyrna Airport.

“I like it when they fly, when they go like they’re going straight at each other then they turn,” said William Eddings, a fan.

“They are usually always together. They are like twins. You know, you might see the whole group but when they’re apart, they’re always together,” Director Black added.

And just before 2 p.m. on June 2, the solors—jets No. 5 and 6—were airborne for a media photo flight.

Alongside them is Sean Tucker, a nationally recognized airshow performer and one of the few allowed to fly with the Blues.

“I’ve had the privilege to be an honorary Blue Angel. I’ve been around the team for over 25 years, and they are one great big family,” he told News 2.

And with that family are Lt. Ryan Chamberlain, No. 5, and Capt. Jeff Kuss, No. 6. They are like brothers.

(Courtesy: KRON)

“Close. They were like this because they have to be. They have to communicate. They are a team. They are the rock and rollers. They are the fighter pilots, and they so much respected each other. They so much loved each other, and so much cared about executing with perfection,” Tucker explained.

It would be the last time the two would land their jets together.

“It was a magnificent flight, and then it turned into a horrible day,” Tucker said.

Preparations for the Great Tennessee Air Show begin a year in advance. By Wednesday, June 1, the wheels are in motion for the airport director.

“You know, we’re all pilots and. We live by checklists, so we’re going down our list, and training is a big part of it. We meet, we meet, we meet, and Wednesday was a great day. They showed up and you got to ride, and it was a great day ,” Black told News 2.

Two Rutherford County educators, Todd Harris and John Ash, along with our own Samantha Fisher, took turns in the passenger seat of jet No. 7 flown by Lt. Tyler Davies.

Samantha’s job is to experience the force of an F-18 and report back. But it was also very personal for her.

Sam’s parents came to watch, reliving their days in the Navy when her father flew A-4 attack jets.

“It’s just something you really kind of relish that’s unique, something you’ll carry with you for your life,” said former Navy pilot Ken Hayes.

There’s also a family connection for Coach Todd Harris, too, who always wanted to be a pilot.

“That was kind of the dream, that as an Air Force brat, I’m going to be a pilot,” he said.

In his teaching and coaching role at Stewarts Creek High, Harris works with local military recruiters who nominated him for the honor of flying with the Blues.

“I actually stopped that day when I got the notification. I called my dad. He’s retired Air Force. He teaches in Texas. I called him and said, ‘Hey Pop, I’m flying with the Blue Angels,’” Harris recalled.

“That night, it’s hundreds of notes on Facebook, Twitter, and texts, and ‘Wow, we saw your video!’ And I caught myself looking at how many views I had and how many people were watching.”

(Photo: WKRN)

He continued, “And so you go to bed that night with, ‘Wow. I lived today.’ You know, there’s that thought of, ‘Man, did you really live? Today, I lived.’”

Every year, the Navy selects three pilots for its F/A-18 Hornets demonstration team. They must be carrier-qualified Navy or Marine aviators with at least 1,250 tactical jet flight hours.

Admiral Jimmie Taylor knows aviation life well.

“I’ve known probably 50 percent of the Blue Angels up through this time frame, so I feel a close attachment as an aviator,” he said.

“As a naval aviator, you always have a close attachment with your fellow pilots, particularly those you fly with a lot, been in combat with, or on and off the ship with,” Admiral Taylor added.

In fact, when producers set out to capture the Navy combat experience in the movie “Top Gun,” it was Taylor who worked on the script.

“So I made some suggestions and never thought it would be filmed, and low and behold, ‘Top Gun’ became one of the top movies of all time, and not just a movie, but support of the Navy,” he explained.

The admiral continued, “We had so many people try and get in the Navy after ‘Top Gun’ came out that we had to turn hundreds away.”

And it’s those types of movies that not only entertain but often inspire young people to reach great heights.

For Capt. Kuss, it seems aviation was in his blood.

He learned to fly before he got his driver’s license, soloing at just 15 years old.

From Durango, Colorado, Kuss was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines. It was there another improbable connection was made.

His flight instructor was a relative of Smyrna’s mayor Mary Esther Reed.

“My husband’s cousin was a flight trainer for the Marines and actually worked with Jeff, and he had just posted a picture on Facebook a couple weeks before that, and immediately when the crash happened, we were talking and I said, ‘Go back and look at that picture and let’s see,’ because we didn’t know who the pilot was, so it just shows how small the world is,” Reed explained to News 2.

Capt. Kuss served in Afghanistan before joining the Blues in 2014, inspiring the next generation to take to the skies.

At exactly 1:53 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, 2016, the sun reflected off the canopy of his jet, which was captured during the media photo shoot.

On the ground, preparations are underway for the air show.

(Photo: WKRN)

Kuss’s wife, Christina, and their two young children are nearing the airport. They’d been on the road this year, traveling hundreds of miles just to have weekends together.

“It’s just an opportunity we never knew we’d never get again, go to really cool places and be together as a family. I wouldn’t give it up for the world now,” Christina told News 2.

In approximately one hour, jet No. 6 went down.

“The first thing I saw and heard was the call from the control tower that we have an aircraft down behind the bowling alley,” said airport director John Black.

“I knew exactly where it was and I knew what had happened,” he added.

Everyone at the Smyrna airport knew exactly what to do, responding immediately while still in shock.

The city’s connection to flight began a long time ago. The Smyrna Airport was built in 1941 as an Air Force base.

Around the same time, Middle Tennessee State University started an aerospace department, now one of the most respected in the nation. Its graduates have risen to the top of aviation fields.

It’s also where Matthew Burns went to study aviation management. He works at the Nissan plant overnight but has aspirations of becoming an air traffic controller.

“Anything that’s with planes, I’ve always been drawn to,” he told News 2.

Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss (Courtesy: U.S. Navy Blue Angels)

He was just getting off work that fateful day. It was nearly 3 p.m. He decided to stop and watch the Blues practice.

I’ve been a Blue Angels fan most of my life. I’ve watched them ever since I can remember,” Burns said.

With his cell phone recording, what Burns captured next shocked him and everyone else who saw it.

“I watched it numerous times. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I watched it, just trying to analyze exactly what happened,” he said.

“I actually found part of the manual for Blue Angels maneuvers, trying to figure out what happened. Did he not go high enough?” Burns questioned.

He continued, “He stays down low on the runway until at the very end. He shoots off and goes vertical.”

Kuss was practicing what’s called a split maneuver. In combat, pilots use it to get out of dodge.

A split maneuver is when the pilot rolls the aircraft 180 degrees then descends into a half loop. The jet levels out in the exact opposite direction at a much lower altitude.

“We’re watching him go up. He comes back down, and we expect him to come below the tree line then come back across the runway,” Burns said.

But Capt. Kuss didn’t climb high enough, and his after-burners are still on.

“At the time, I turn around and look and see the diamond formation, so we watched them fly over and whenever we turned back around is when we started seeing the smoke,” explained Burns.

911 was flooded with calls.

“I saw it happen out of my window, which is my worst nightmare during an air show because we practice safety. We train for it. You never want to see it,” the airport director said.

“I had taken a couple pictures of them taking off and after maybe 15 to 20 pictures, I turned around, laid my camera back in my truck, and the incident happened,” said Smyrna’s fire chief, Bill Culbertson.

Witnesses everywhere tried to process the shock of what they saw.

“It sounded like a sonic boom, but it was really, really low,” said Hewitt Spain with the Sam Davis Home.

“When the accident happened, I was at the airport, and you’re just stunned. You become very introspective. You let the professionals take over. You’re very alone. You’re very alone,” said Sean Tucker, an air show performer.

First responders searched for the plane and the pilot. It appeared to happen right next to an apartment complex.

“When I first moved to Smyrna, I actually lived in the Weakley Lane apartment, and so I could see roughly where that might have been, and my heart sank not seeing where it had landed, figuring the worst,” said Daniel Uthus, a firefighter.

The jet broke apart in a field between those apartments and the historic Sam Davis home.

“I was just talking about the general nature of what goes on in the smokehouse to a little girl and her grandmother, who were on tour, and that’s when the plane went down,” said Spain.

“I could see, coming up from the back of the cotton fields, the smoke and the fire, and when we finally get to the field, I couldn’t recognize anything. Airplane debris everywhere,” Uthus explained.

“Nothing from the sleep blue paint they had was recognizable to me,” he added.

Chief Culbertson said there were 43 calls to 911 on the jet alone.

(Courtesy: Briann Mcgriff)

“After the EMTs had been here about 30 minutes, one of the actual Blue Angels pilots came out to the site,” Spain told News 2.

“Subsequently to that, I start getting calls from the Navy, the investigative side of the Navy team that was going to come here and start working the crash site, the incident, and try to understand what happened,” said John Black with the airport.

Behind the scenes, the principal of Stewarts Creek High School gets a call. He’s about to transition into a role he knows well.

“And that’s exactly what happened … I’m no longer Clark, and I’m not a principal, civilian. I’ve got to get into my military [role]; I’m the chaplain. I need to go help fellow warriors that are in need,” Clark Harrell said.

It became clear the team would not perform at the upcoming air show. Airport Director John Black was faced with a tough decision.

“Because the rest of the Blue Angels team was in the next room, and we immediately came together and said, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’” he said.

The Blues will not go on, and there are other considerations.

Capt. Kuss’ wife was on her way.

“I knew she was en route because obviously we take care of all the accommodations and know all of their movements,” Black said.

“The thing you think about more than anything is the surviving family,” Admiral Jimmie Taylor said.

“To stop and think that his wife and two children were just minutes away from the airport itself, that’s a kicker. It’s hard to swallow,” Fire Chief Bill Culbertson said.

Still in shock, Smyrna gathers to honor the fallen Blue Angels pilot while nearby, Chaplain Harrell is counseling the team at a hotel—from the pilots to the mechanics.

It’s a highly confidential process and likely only he and the Navy will ever know exactly what happened.

“If you piece together all the stories together, you know every detail, you know the last words said by Jeff, by everyone. You know the last context and, uniquely in my position, it’s like it’s all there. That’s what I carry with me,” Harrell told News 2.

“I can remember every conversation, every deep word, and things that were said, and that’s something I keep with myself and I don’t share with anyone else,” he added.

After the crash on that rainy day, a rainbow appears over Smyrna. Almost everyone saw it.

“I got to see the top of it. It, you now, in the Bible, it’s a sign from God. That day, maybe, it’s certainly something to hold onto,” said Todd Harris, the teacher who flew with the Blues the day before.

And for one person in particular, the image is very personal.

“For me, it was Jeff saying he was with us. I’ve seen a handful of rainbows since, and they are always when I need them the most, and I truly believe he’s in the rainbows for me,” wife Christina Kuss said.

“I believe she said the captain put it there for her, or some words of that nature. I think that’s great, that he left that for her,” Chief Culbertson said.

In the months that followed, the city of Smyrna continued to honor Capt. Kuss and the Blue Angels.

“You probably had 3,500 people either being on the field, in the stadium. They weren’t even asked to stand, but as the silent drill team began, everybody stood. There was not a sound. I don’t remember a single cell phone sound, and they watched as these marines performed that night in honor of Captain Kuss,” said Harris.

And then plans began for something permanent—a memorial that represents how Smyrna feels about the sacrifice of Capt. Kuss and all those who serve in the military.

“They wanted to see what you see here today. We didn’t have a clue how to get a Blue Angel. They said it would be a three to four year wait,” Mayor Reed said.

“I wrote a supporting letter about the Blues and what was happening here and the level of support we had,” Admiral Taylor added.

That three-to-four year wait was shortened—considerably.

“How many communities can say they have somebody over the Blue Angels who lives in their community? So Rear Admiral Taylor helps us get the Blue Angel,” the mayor told News 2.

When the jet arrived, just one week before the first anniversary of the tragedy, it’s a healing moment.

“Everybody’s been watching it. Everybody talks about it. We all still do,” said Smyrna resident Sharon Lorraine.

“Now, today, to see the pride the community had, and so thankful to Mayor Reed and the effort she and the council put forth to make this memorial come to fruition… wonderful,” said another resident, Larry Montgomery.

“That field will never be looked at the same,” added Jerry Boone.

“I can probably say there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. I pass this spot and this spot where the crash happened every day, to and from work,” said Matthew Burns, who witnessed the crash.

“There were so many here in my city, here in Smyrna and Rutherford County, and even to Davidson and all of Middle Tennessee, that just wanted to do something, and what I’m glad to say, even a year later, is that we have the same spirit, and that means a lot not only to me but I know to military personnel, and certainly remembering a warrior that needs to be remembered for his sacrifice for his country and what he’s done, and for the family and his children that they will know that Jeff will never be forgotten,” said Chaplain Harrell.

The jet that now resides in Smyrna was in service during the Blue Angels air show in 2016. At that time, it was No. 3, and it’s likely Capt. Kuss flew it at some point during his training.

Now with the No. 6 painted across it for the fallen pilot, the jet will stay in a hangar at Smyrna Airport until the memorial is complete.

As for the legacy of the Great Tennessee Air Show, it, and the Blue Angels, will be back.

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