People across the nation mourned the loss of a U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilot Friday. Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss died in a jet crash in Middle Tennessee on Thursday, during a rehearsal ahead of a show.
The U.S. Navy identified him during a press conference and expressed their condolences.
“The nation has lost an incredible husband, father, son, marine and teammate," said a spokesperson. "Truly one of the finest Americans this country can produce."
Rob Reider, the voice of the Air Show, said Kuss left behind a wife and two young children. A Blue Angels representative said this was Kuss' second year on the Blue Angels team, though his first as a demonstration pilot.
REMEMBERING MARINE CAPT. KUSS
Kuss' parents, who live in Durango, Colo., said their son had dreamed of flying his whole life when they spoke to media Friday.
"His first toys were jets, he'd pass over trucks and cars and whatever else, to get to the jets," said his mother, Janet Kuss, smiling as she remembered. "He has, since he was a little kid had goals to be a pilot."
She said he had written about becoming a pilot since he was a little boy, from kindergarten through high school.
"He worked so hard to be a talented pilot and enjoyed his craft and loved all the people around him," said Jeff's dad, Michael Kuss. "He made the people around him better."
The pilot's grandfather, Dolph Kuss, spoke to media late Thursday.
"It's hard to put into words right now, but it's beautiful that a person can live and die engaged in their life's pursuits," said Dolph Kuss. "This was his dream since he was a child, to be an aviator, a flier."
Kuss' parents both said their hometown, Durango, has been very respectful as they mourn the loss of their son. They said they had been inundated with flowers and condolences from across the country since the crash.
Back in East Tennessee, those in the military and civilians who had watched the air show paid their respects to Capt. Kuss.
"You know, anytime an incident like this happens, it's tragic, it's definitely felt across the U.S. Military," said Msgt. Jon Ladue, who handles public affairs for the 134th refueling wing, which hosted the Great Smoky Mountain Air Show - including the Blue Angels - in April. He said Kuss specifically went out into the communities to inspire young people.
"He talked to media then about wanting to get out in the communities and light a fire in the bellies of these young children, who might want to serve, and even if they don't they can follow their dreams," said Ladue.
Seth Bowers, a Hardin Valley Academy senior, was one of those students.
"It really, it leaves an impact on you," he said of the experience. "We had 62- students in that auditorium and you could've heard a pin drop."
Assistant Principal George Ashe said Kuss encouraged the teenagers to work hard.
"He talked about grit and resilience and perserverance in the face of adversity," recalled Ashe. "He passed living his passion, living his dream, and...may we all."
"The other five Blue Angel jets were not involved in the incident and landed safely moments later," wrote a U.S. Navy representative in a release. "The crash occurred approximately two miles from the runway."
A fireball and thick black plume of smoke from the crash could be seen just beyond the runway at Smyrna Airport and from Interstate 24.
In a news conference Thursday, officials were unsure why the plane went down, and said they didn't know if the plane had a "black box" or if the pilot had issued a distress call before the crash.
THE AIR SHOW
Investigators closed roads near the crash site Thursday evening, and the U.S. Navy announced the Blue Angels would not perform in the air show. Other performers said they would fly in honor of Kuss.
"Our whole goal is to honor those that have gone before, and unfortunately, we had somebody that paid the full price yesterday," said Michael Kennedy, a local performer in the show. "The reason we continue to fly is to honor that memory and inspire future generations."
Organizers of the show said a portion of the ticket sales made at the Great Tennessee Air Show would go to the family of Capt. Kuss.
“We need time to grieve this tremendous loss and will work with investigators in determining the cause of this tragic mishap," said a Blue Angels spokesman at a press conference on Friday. He did not identify himself.
Steve Fiebing, deputy public affairs officer for the Naval Air Forces, said Thursday the Naval Air Forces would investigate the crash.
Speaking to the Tennessean newspaper, Jennifer Elliott said she felt the explosion at her house, about a mile from the Smyrna airport.
”It sounded like car crashed into my house,” she said. “Everything shook.”
Minutes later, she said she could hear sirens and the other Blue Angels team were circling over the smoke.
Another witness told 10News the plane was coming in "fast and flat" and had just completed a 360 at the time of the crash.
HISTORY OF PERFORMANCE PLANE CRASHES
The crash occurred the same day as another military performance plane, a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird, crashed near Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado after a flyover during a graduation ceremony.
The six jets of the Blue Angels roared over downtown Nashville earlier Thursday. The Blue Angels are scheduled to fly 66 demonstrations at 34 locations throughout the nation this year, which is the Blue Angels' 70th anniversary year.
The mission of the flight unit is to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps through flight demonstrations and community outreach.
It’s still unclear how many times Blue Angels have crashed in the team's history. Media reports indicate the last fatal crash involving the Blue Angels was a 2007 crash in South Carolina. The pilot flew too low and tried to make a turn while traveling too fast, leading to the fatal crash, according to The Virginian Pilot.
At the time, The Associated Press reported the crash was the 26th fatality in Blue Angel’s history.
In order to become a specific type of Blue Angel’s pilot, Navy and Marine pilots must have aircraft carrier qualifications and a minimum of 1,250 tactical jet-flight hours, according the team’s website. Pilots typically serve two years before returning to their units.
Since 1946, the Blue Angels have performed for more than 484 million fans, according to the team’s website. The team recently performed at the Smoky Mountain Air Show in Blount County.
This story will be updated.
Smyrna Tennessee Airport Crash -picture Corey Bryant pic.twitter.com/wgmLpvJavW— ProfessionalGeek (@ZackDos) June 2, 2016
Smyrna Tennessee Airport Crash -picture Corey Bryant pic.twitter.com/DR3K9zfWVd— ProfessionalGeek (@ZackDos) June 2, 2016
Editor's Note: The Tennessean and the Associated Press contributed to this story.