Air shows cancelled: Blue Angels, Thunderbirds grounded by sequester

Air shows cancelled: Automatic sequester budget cuts mean an end to the 2013 season for the Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds. The real losers may be local economies benefitting from air shows.

Stelios Varias/REUTERS
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland last year. The Navy has cancelled the remaining 2013 performances of its Flight Demonstration Squadron. The Air Force Thunderbirds have cancelled the rest of their shows for the year as well.

Travelers across the US are pleased that furloughs for air traffic controllers have been cancelled. Aside from the usual delays for weather and maintenance problems, that means fewer hours trapped on the tarmac or looking for places to charge smart phones in airport terminals.

But there’s another group of frequent flyers who’ve been grounded by across-the-board budget cuts due to the sequester: Navy and Air Force flight demonstration teams, those aerial hotshots whose main purpose is to enhance public relations, attract new recruits, and reflect patriotism with what’s been bumper-stickered as “The Sound of Freedom.”

There are plenty of other air shows around the country, such as the “Vidalia Onion Festival Air Show” in Georgia and the “Take to the Skies AirFest” in Durant, Okla. They just won’t feature the Air Force Thunderbirds or the Navy Blue Angels flying genuine fighter jets. Or the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team.

All three have cancelled their season.

John Cudahy. president of the International Council of Air Shows tells the Associated Press that about 200 of the nation's 300 air shows have been affected by the federal budget cuts and 60 have already been cancelled. He said more cancellations are expected, and some shows may never come back.

"The worst case is that they either cancel and go out of business, or they don't cancel and they have such poor attendance and they go out of business," he said. Economic impact studies indicate the shows are worth $1 billion to $2 billion nationwide, Cudahy estimates.

"Having the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels is like having the Super Bowl, it's a household name," Bill Walkup, manager of the Martinsburg, W.V. airport told the AP.

When the Thunderbirds performed there in 2010, the show drew 88,000 people. Without a jet team, the show typically draws 15,000 or fewer. When they learned there’d be no Thunderbirds, organizers cancelled this year’s show.

Thunderbirds spokesman Maj. Darrick Lee said a typical season averages about $9.75 million and the Air Force needs to focus its resources now on its mission in Afghanistan. Team members are still doing local public appearances that have little or no cost, including autograph-signing sessions at schools and other venues.

"Would we prefer to be flying? Of course," Maj. Lee said. But, he added, "We encourage folks to go and have a good time with or without us."

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