The Navy's Blue Angels demonstration team is en route to its headquarters in Pensacola, Florida, after pilot Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss was killed in a tragic crash during practice Thursday.
Kuss, 32, of Durango, Colorado, was formally identified by Blue Angels Commanding Officer Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi in a Friday afternoon press conference at the Smyrna, Tennessee, airport.
The Blue Angels had been set to perform there this weekend for the Great Tennessee Airshow, but canceled their appearance following the crash.
Kuss had a distinguished career that included a deployment to Afghanistan while attached to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312 in 2011. He joined the Blue Angels in 2014, and had spent a year as the Opposing Solo for the Blue Angels and pilot of the No. 6 aircraft. According to his official biography, he had accumulated more than 1,400 flight hours and 175 carrier-arrested landings.
"We lost an aviator that believed so deeply in the Blue Angels mission of inspiring others and representing the Navy and Marine Corps, our citizens, and our great country," Bernacchi said.
"In doing so, he embodied and inspired in all of us an incredible spirit of compassion, courage and resiliency, and those characteristics are what the Blue Angels will harness as we move forward," he added.
Officials with Naval Air Forces said the other five F/A-18 Hornets in the Blue Angels flight demonstration team will conduct a one-time return flight to Naval Air Station Pensacola before beginning an indefinite stand-down, or operational pause, in order to complete an investigation into the accident and ensure safe operations moving forward.
A decision will likely be made next week on whether to continue with the remainder of the air show season, Naval Air Forces spokesman Lt. Clinton Beaird said.
"Thank you for understanding that we need time to grieve this tremendous loss, and to work with investigators in determining the cause of this mishap," Bernacchi said.
In Pensacola, the team members will be able to regroup and spend time with family. At least one other former Blue Angel is also en route, in hopes of providing some support to the team.
Marine Maj. Dusty Cook, who flew the Blue Angels C-130 Hercules "Fat Albert" from 2013 to 2015, told Military.com that Kuss was a "wholesome guy" and a professional officer with whom he had bonded as a fellow Marine on the Blue Angels team.
Cook, who flew Friday to Pensacola from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he is currently serving as the executive officer of 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, said Kuss -- callsign "Kooch" -- had a firm, brisk handshake and was able to find rapport with everyone on the team, from the commanding officer to the enlisted aircraft maintainers.
Cook said he got to know the fallen officer even better during a 2014 winter media visit that Kuss, then the No. 7 pilot on the team, made to Knoxville, Tennessee. The aircraft had mechanical problems, and the two men bonded over a bad situation.
"The planes are gremlins. They're Pensacola airplanes; they love warm water, they like nice weather," Cook said. "We commiserate together."
Kuss, from Colorado, and Cook, from Texas, shared a rural upbringing and loved talking about rodeos and ranching, he said.
"I could sit and tell stories about drinking a couple of beers and his, just terrible rendition of [Brooks & Dunn song] 'Boot-Scootin' Boogie,'" Cook said. "There's an extra twang-level tinge that he adds to his singing voice."
In the wake of the crash, Cook said the members of the Blue Angels team he'd spoken with expressed shock at the loss of Kuss.
"Everyone's so numb," he said. "They just feel like they're spinning their wheels."
Kuss' sister-in-law, Nicole Perino, launched a GoFundMe fundraising page to help cover immediate costs and provide ongoing support to the family. Kuss is survived by his wife, Christina, and two children: Calvin, 4, and Sloane, 1.
"Thank you for all of the positive support at this terrible time," Perino wrote on the page. "We feel so fortunate to feel the love from everyone, it truly helps heal our deep wounds."
For his part, Cook is soliciting stories about Kuss in hopes of collecting tributes not only from his teammates, but also from the Blue Angels' most committed fans, known as the "Blue Angels chase group." He plans to publish them on his personal website as a tribute.
"More people deserve to know him," Cook said.