Cause of the Tragic Loss of Blue Angel Ruled Pilot Error

The crash investigation report is a stark reminder of just how slim the margin of error is up there.

AP

Too much speed and not enough altitude, along with a series of smaller contributing factors, sent Capt Jeff Kuss, Blue Angel #6, and his F/A-18 Hornet careening into the ground during a practice session in the skies above Smyrna, Tennessee, in June. Kuss had attempted to eject at the last moment but too late to successfully separate from the aircraft, according to a highly detailed Navy investigation report.

The doomed maneuver happened right at the start of the Blue Angels solos’ show sequence. Kuss was supposed to rocket down the runway and abruptly pitch up to 70 degrees attitude, then execute a split-s to stop his ascent. The envelope for the maneuver is limited, demanding an airspeed of 125 to 135 knots and an altitude in excess of 3,500 feet above the ground. Kuss was far above that speed, traveling at 184 knots and in full afterburner when he executed the split-s.

In addition, his altitude, 3,196 feet, was below the minimum required height for the maneuver. Making things worse, Kuss left the jet in full afterburner even as its nose was pointed perpendicular to the ground. His radio call at this point was correct, but it did not reflect the dire nature of the situation.

With the ground rapidly approaching, Kuss didn't execute a dive recovery soon enough to escape. The Hornet’s engines were never pulled out of full power, even as the jet smashed into the ground.

From the official report, which you can read in its entirety here:

"Capt Kuss did not perform the Split S portion of the maneuver in accordance with the Blue Angels Solo SOP. Capt Kuss would have seen a barometric altitude readout of 3200 feet displayed in his HUD at the apex of the maneuver. Regardless of whether the barometric altitude was accurate, the displayed apex altitude was 300 feet below the SOP minimum Pull-Down (Split-S Initiation) altitude mandated in the Solo SOP and grounds for a "no maneuver." He also exceeded the optimum maneuver entry airspeed by 50 knots. Capt Kuss did not pull the throttles out of MAX at or before 90 degrees nose low, although he made the mandatory radio call, "Vertical, Blowers, RadAlt." Capt Kuss never pulled the throttles out of MAX.”

Here is what the maneuver is supposed to look like, and what happened on that sad day in June:

The Hornet was reported to have been current on all its required maintenance and only had small “gripes” (issues with an aircraft usually pointed out by aircrew).

The report explains that Kuss was an exemplary officer and was held in the highest regard by his peers. By all accounts he was also an incredibly capable fighter pilot with a keen attention to detail and procedure. This contrasts with the strange set of errors he experienced in those critical moments before the end of his life.

The investigation found an anomaly at the top of Kuss’s climb. The split-s maneuver requires no more than a 180 roll to inverted, after which #6 starts their downward “pull.” For unknown reasons, Kuss executed a 540 degree roll instead, completing one and a half full rolls before pulling into the vertical, nose down. Nowhere in the Blue Angel’s standard operating procedures and show routine is such a dramatic roll called for, nor is such a move cleared by the Navy or the FAA.  

Strangely, Kuss missed other routine actions leading up to the doomed maneuver. The report explains:

“Capt Kuss was viewed as one of the most meticulous and professional Blue Angel pilots by his teammates, but leading up to the mishap flight, he committed errors that appear out of his norm, including not signing the aircraft acceptance (A) sheet for the aircraft prior to the mishap flight and not turning on his Mode 3 squawk during the mishap flight, although a preassigned squawk was provided to him.”

No drugs or alcohol were found in Kuss’s system, nor were there any other known physical or psychological factors that could have contributed to the crash.

The report draws certain conclusions, and one of them is that weather likely played some role in the incident:

“Weather was a factor in this mishap. The weather observation was 3,000 scattered, but there were multiple billowing clouds near the departure end of the takeoff runway, Runway 14. Just prior to takeoff, Capt Kuss had a discussion with the Lead Solo about the viability of being able to “make” (successfully execute) the HPC. The clouds may have influenced Capt Kuss’ decision to begin the Split S before reaching the mandatory minimum altitude of 3,500 feet AGL.”

The report also makes a series of recommendations, many of which have to do with revising standard operating procedures documents and training routines related to the Blue Angel’s demo, especially the ones having to do with #6’s split-s maneuver:

“The content of the NFDS Solo SOP Low Transition/High Performance Climb/Split S requires revision. The maneuver description is vague and poorly written. The maneuver description does not provide detailed standards for execution under varying conditions. Quantifiable limitations and additional safety factors must be added. “No maneuver” conditions must be amplified and articulated with additional granularity.”

This maneuver and a similar one performed by the Thunderbirds has led to two major incidents since 2003. In 2004, Blue Angel #6 also had a major mishap while being trained to execute the split-s at the start of the solos’ demonstration routine. The pilot survived but the jet had to be written off. Then in 2003, the Thunderbirds had a major mishap when their opposing solo pilot misjudged his altitude during a similar split-s departure maneuver, leaving him just a split second to successfully eject. Thankfully, the pilot survived.

The report also underlines how the opposing solo (Blue Angel #6) has been involved with all of the team’s last three Class A mishaps, which included two pilot deaths and the loss of three F/A-18 Hornets.

Another potential cause, the documents say, is the unique nature and culture of the Blue Angels squadron. Unlike other squadrons, pilots cannot fill in for one another if they feel sick, exhausted or in a mental state that may impair their flying. Considering the high-profile nature of the Blue Angel’s mission, opting out of a demonstration due to anything from fatigue to a personal issue can leave hundreds of thousands of spectators disappointed. Even worse, it may be perceived as letting the team down. This, combined with the squadron’s insanely hectic schedule, may have been a sort of ticking time bomb. A final endorsement letter of the investigation from the Commander of Naval Air Force Pacific, Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, underlines the need to change:

“The unique nature of the NFDS adds another risk dynamic. Every other squadron in the feet has the ability to find a substitute pilot to complete the mission or execute an alternate mission. However, if one of the Blue Angel pilots is not ready, there are no other pilots who can readily cover their position for a show. The pressure to not let the team down and miss a performance, although unspoken, is tremendous. Fundamentally, we will create an environment for the NFDS where each pilot feels empowered to speak up before or during a brief if they are not physically or mentally prepared for a fight. Additionally, we will ensure the other pilots and members of the team are looking for those signs as well. 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 extend to the Blue Angels as well.”

It is not clear if fatigue actually played a role in Captain Kuss’s death, but it is certainly possible, especially considering the uncharacteristic set of mistakes he made leading up to the crash. Although, the official investigation report states:

"Monday, May 30 and Tuesday, May 31 were days off for the Blue Angels, providing Capt Kuss with time to rest, recuperate, and spend time with his family... Capt Kuss showed no signs of fatigue or stress on Wednesday, 1 June or Thursday, 2 June 2016."

With all this in mind, it seems like Captain Kuss was truly having an off day. We all have them, even fighter pilots at the top of their careers. But for most these days result in spilled coffeee, a fender bender or a botched presentation at work. For a guy that is tasked with performing aerobatics at incredible speeds and at very low altitudes, all choreographed with five other aircraft hurtling through the same small piece of sky, a bad day can have far worse consequences.

Rest in peace Captain Kuss.

AP

Captain Kuss in front of a Blue Angel F/A-18.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com