Home » Aviation » Navy Investigation Concludes Fatal Blue Angels Crash Caused By Pilot Error


Navy Investigation Concludes Fatal Blue Angels Crash Caused By Pilot Error

Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss in 2014. Blues Angels Photo

Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss in 2014. Blues Angels Photo

The Navy determined that pilot error caused the fatal Blue Angels crash on June 2, with Marine Corps pilot Capt. Jeffery Kuss entering the first maneuver in a training run too fast and losing control of the aircraft.

The Navy investigation, signed by Chief of Naval Air Training Rear Adm. Dell Bull on Aug. 25 and by Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker on Sept. 14, notes that the investigation “did not uncover evidence the mishap was caused by mechanical, maintenance or other aircraft-related issues.”

Though Kuss, the Blue Angel 6 pilot with solo maneuvers in the show, was “fully certified, qualified, and authorized for flight status,” the pilot entered into his first maneuver, called the “Split S,” too fast and too low. He did not attempt a dive recovery effort after making these initial mistakes, the investigation found, and “the aircraft was simply too low and too fast to avoid impacting the ground,” states the report, released to USNI News today.

A more detailed section of the report adds that Kuss, who was designated a naval aviator in November 2009 and had accumulated more than 1,680 hours of military flight hours with no mishaps or violations, was flying at 184 knots while entering the maneuver instead of the optimal 125 to 135 knots. Rather than performing the planned 180-degree roll, Kuss performed a 540-degree roll, which is not part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s approved Blue Angel Maneuvers Package and doesn’t comply with Naval Air Systems Command’s Interim Flight Clearance for Blue Angels Aircraft. During the Split S maneuver, Kuss made a call on the radio indicating that he had reached a position of flying vertical and pointing down and had lowered the throttles from their “MAX” position, but the report states the throttles were still at MAX when the plane crashed. He did not attempt a dive recovery maneuver as he neared the ground.

Kuss did attempt to eject from the aircraft but did so too late to survive the crash.

The two versions of the report signed out show differing opinions on the role weather played, with Bull’s version calling weather “not a causal factor” but Shoemaker’s version suggesting that clouds may have led the pilot to begin the Split S maneuver at a lower altitude. Shoemaker’s memo also highlights the role of pilot fatigue, stating that “Capt. Kuss showed signs of fatigue on Thursday, 2 June 2016 as evidenced by out-of-character habit pattern omissions, such as not signing the [aircraft acceptance] sheet, not turning on [his transponder], and not deselecting afterburner after verbalizing it on the radio.”

Though the aircraft as a whole was deemed to be in working condition, the report notes a potential problem with the altimeters – a discrepancy between the radar and barometric altimeters – which could have shown an incorrect or delayed reading during Kuss’s flight. Still, the report finds, “based on his training and experience, he should have recognized his extremely rapid descent rate and that the nose angle does not always equate to aircraft flight path.”

The investigation noted that a similar mishap occurred in 2004, when the incoming Blue Angel 6 pilot was being trained to perform the Split S maneuver. The pilot ejected from the plane and survived, but the plane was a total loss.

The report makes clear that readiness – both the material condition of the plane and the training of the pilot– was not a factor in the crash. Marine Corps aviation ordered an operational pause in early August after two other Hornets crashed within five days of each other in July. The service has struggled maintain readiness in its non-deployed squadrons, but Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis has repeatedly said that pilots were receiving enough flight hours each month to operate safely, even if flight hour averages are below desired levels.

The investigation recommends several actions related to reviewing and archiving Blue Angels standard operating procedures. It also calls for changes in the Split S maneuver itself to make the evolution safer, and it recommends new tools such as a computer program that could calculate a needed turn radius and other metrics for the pilots, rather than making pilots calculate the numbers by hand based on the altitude and other features of each individual show field.

Shoemaker wrote in his memo signing off on the investigation that Kuss was “fully qualified to fly the F/A-18C aircraft and was universally recognized as one of the most meticulous and professional Blue Angel pilots by his teammates.”

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Categories: Aviation, News & Analysis, U.S. Navy
Megan Eckstein

About Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is a staff writer for USNI News. She previously covered Congress for Defense Daily and the U.S. surface navy and U.S. amphibious operations as an associate editor for Inside the Navy.

  • Marauder 2048

    Wonder if Auto-GCAS would have saved his life.

    • BlackKnight

      More than likely not. His aircraft sink rate was too excessive to recover as the throttles were still in full afterburner when he hit the ground. This kind of sink rate exceeded the command ejection acceleration rate for his seat as well. In the F-16 as an example the aircraft system commands a 5 G pullout, but in this case it would not have been enough to escape collision with the earth.The pilot still has to eject as was the case with the Thunderbird pilot who did so and survived because he ejected at a higher altitude. This was the same kind of accident (pilot error as the TB pilot set the wrong altimeter setting so he was 500 feet too low at the top of the maneuver. These maneuvers (normally done at high altitude during combat), are displayed at low altitudes for air shows and can have drastic circumstances if airspeed and altitude parameters are not adhered to. In this case the accident report stated that the pilot attempted to eject but did not make it. My initial thoughts are that the downward momentum exceeded the escape velocity of the ejection seat when propelling him away from the aircraft. The result was he hit the ground before the parachute could deploy. The G-forces may have caused him to black out as he left the aircraft so that he probably never knew what happened.

  • Bruce Parker

    Thd Blue Angels Make it all look So Routine as they perform their Split second timed, death defying manouvers, but, Sometimes, even the Smallest of details can go wrong, horribly Wrong. RIP Captain Kuss, we really Enjoyed your previous shows, and Appreciate Your Dedicated Service to our Nation!

  • William Corcoran

    • Direct Causation

    An inescapable fact is that every effect/ phenomenon/ result/ consequence/ outcome/error is the direct result of a set of conditions, behaviors, actions, and/or inactions.

    One condition, behavior, action, or inaction cannot be the causation of any effect/ phenomenon/ result/ consequence/ outcome/error in the absence of at least one other pre-existing predisposing set-up condition, behavior, action, and/or inaction . Thus one should not ask why, but rather, “What is the set of conditions, behaviors, actions, and/or inactions that directly resulted in the effect?

    Observation: The causation of an intersection collision involves much more than running a stop sign.

    Observation: The causation of the Challenger accident involved much more than low launch temperature.

    Advice: When one is told that X was caused by Y, ask “What were the other conditions, behaviors, actions, and/or inactions that were necessary for the occurrence of X?”

    Observation: Any condition, behavior, action, or inaction that affected one or more attributes of the harmful result was part of the causation of the result.

    Observation: Any condition, behavior, action, or inaction that affected one or more attributes of the harmful result directly, i.e., without intermediation, was part of the direct causation of the result.

    Observation: “The Five Whys” element of Six Sigma naively and simplistically ignores this inescapable fact .

    Observation: At Brunswick Nuclear Station in 2011 operators started up the reactor with the reactor vessel head bolts tensioned to only one tenth the requirement. NRC accepted “failure to provide the necessary training and procedure guidance” as “the root cause” without inquiring as to the other root causes, nor as to the direct causation of the accepted root cause .

    • CBSBASS

      Why? Failure to avoid hitting the ground.

  • Tm Krch

    Having done similar maneuvers myself (certainly at a much less sophisticated or complex level) this tragedy is understandable and unfortunate, but the outcome should come as no surprise. It’s all about hitting the numbers and the best who have achieved such a high benchmark, while making it look so easy can miss one of those numbers with catastrophic results. Like fans criticizing an NFL performance, few of us could hold a candle to such an achievement as making the Blues. So unlike NFL fans we should not resort to any criticism and remember just how these guys amaze.

  • Batman

    RIP I will always support the Blue Angels.

  • Arthur Vallejo

    I try to be mindful of the reality that Captain Kuss’ profession demands constant perfection. He was human for a few minutes.