Blue Angel and Marine Capt. Jeffrey Kuss, 32, was killed in a June 2 crash near Smyrna, Tenn., during a practice for the Great Tennessee Air Show. The Navy’s safety investigation is complete and has come with several recommendations.
The Navy investigation report is complete after what was a stunning and tragic day for the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team (Blue Angels). Capt. Jeff Kuss was performing a reposition maneuver with his F/A-18 Hornet. After a rapid climb, Kuss was attempting what aviators call the “Split S,”in an effort a return to the airshow center. Tragically, his F/-18 struck the ground while performing the fatal maneuver.
The Navy investigation report cited the start of the maneuver as too low and too fast to be completed safely.
“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.”
A split S is a basic maneuver that all fighter pilots perform during ACM “Air Combat Maneuvers” (also known as dogfighting). The maneuver requires about 4500 feet of altitude delta to complete safely, although it can be performed with slightly less altitude delta depending on the aircraft, airspeed and G forces pulled. Not deselecting afterburners creates a much larger “loop” and thus would require more altitude to complete.
Training flights where the Split S are performed occur with at least a 10,000 foot altitude buffer from the ground. The Blue Angels perform the majority of their show under 10,000 feet.
In addition to eliminating the Split-S from operations until further notice, the Commander of Naval Air Forces (CNAF) VADM Mike Shoemaker also put in place several other safety measures and controls for future Blue Angels performances.
These include dive recovery rules with specific airspeed limitations. Dive recovery rules are simply check points pilots must follow while airborne and abort the maneuver if passing a certain unsafe threshold. The Blue Angels must also use a greater safety buffer between aircraft and the ground for the remainder of the season creating more altitude for difficult maneuvers. Finally, CNAF is requiring pilots to make positive radio confirmation with instruments that measure altitude prior to takeoff. This will set a baseline for the altimeters and cross check instruments with other aircraft to ensure no single aircraft is out of proper calibration.
All of these measures combined should create a safer show that does not compromise the integrity of the performance.
Partial cloud cover and possible fatigue to Kuss were also listed as contributing factors. It was also noted that Kuss did try to initiate ejection but was too late. These factors have led to concerns from Navy leaders that the Blue Angels are under tremendous pressure to perform no matter the circumstances. Alleviating that pressure is also part of the investigation recommendations.
“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.”
Additionally, the Blue Angels will have a safety team review the training, maintenance and culture of the squadron. The changes will also include a full review of all aerial maneuvers with an emphasis on increasing safety and adjusting future show schedules to provide more rest for pilots and support staff.
A safe air show is paramount. It is my opinion that spectators will continue to see the Blues perform an outstanding show with these new rules and that it will be done in the same superb and professional manner we have all experienced.
You can read the investigation report here.
You can read Dan Lamothe’s Washington Post article here.
Top Photo: Birmingham News/Mark Almond