POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 24, 2013
TITUSVILLE, Fla. » A screaming comes across the sky. Again and again, all day long.
Here at the 36th annual TiCo Warbird Airshow, fighter jets and vintage planes roar and rumble by as viewers ooh, aah and then walk over to the line of food stands to buy funnel cakes and gyros, corn dogs and root-beer floats.
The undisputed star, of course, is the Air Force Thunderbirds, whose six-plane precision flying team crisscrosses a perfect sky in ever-changing formations and gives an undiluted thrill to the crowd — at least those who brought earplugs.
But this is likely to be the last appearance by the Thunderbirds until the end of the federal government's fiscal year on Sept. 30, if not longer. A performance this weekend by the Navy and Marine Corps' Blue Angels in Key West, Fla., will also be its last for some time. The Army's parachute demonstration team, the Golden Knights, is also suspending performances.
The failure of Congress to avoid the automatic spending cuts under what is known as sequestration is being felt in many ways, including the cancellation of White House tours and the loss of some 70,000 slots in Head Start early education programs. Along with less visible cuts, the Defense Department has suspended operation of the demonstration teams starting April 1.
(The Navy is hedging its bets, having simply announced its intent to cancel performances in April while waiting to see whether financing problems are resolved, said Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a Navy spokesman. "We want these cuts to be implemented at the last possible moment, so they can be reversed where possible," he said.)
Under sequestration, the Air Force must reduce flying hours by 18 percent, or about 203,000 hours, said Wendy S. Varhegyi, a spokeswoman; the decision to ground air show participation allows the Air Force "to redistribute their flying hours to support overseas contingency operations and predeployment readiness training." It will also save some of the $9.75 million annual Thunderbirds budget.
The cuts make sense, said Maren Leed, a defense policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I personally think it would be irresponsible if the Department of Defense did not take cuts like this."
That does not mean the decision is popular, even within Leed's own family, she said; her 4-year-old son is wild about the Blue Angels.
"He got a brochure; we read it every night," she said. They had planned to see a performance in Annapolis in May. "I haven't figured out how to tell him yet," Leed said.
The air shows will feel the effects as well. The Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds are "the biggest draw that makes the biggest noise," said John Cudahy, the president of the International Council of Air Shows, the industry trade group. "The absence of the jet teams leaves a big hole in the air show business."
Robert Duncan, the chairman of the executive committee for the Indianapolis Air Show, said that "typically, a Blue Angels show will add 25 percent to your gate." This summer's 17th annual show was canceled in February as the uncertainty over sequestration and its effects grew.
"It was getting difficult to attract sponsors and get commitment for financial support," Duncan said. "Every time they would ask, ‘Are the Blue Angels coming?' We had to say, no pun intended, ‘It's up in the air."'
The ripple effects of just one canceled show can be enormous, Duncan said. The air show has raised $1.3 million for the Riley Hospital for Children over the years. Many of the workers are volunteers, but the show employs contractors for services like publicity, insurance and entertainment. Money for aviation fuel, hotel rooms and many other things will not be flowing through the local economy. "We canceled our order for 120 golf carts," he said.
Other shows will go on. "We'll have a fantastic air show this year, with or without the military teams," said Jim DiMatteo, an official with EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, a gargantuan weeklong celebration in Wisconsin of aviation of which the air show is only a part. The Wings Over Houston Airshow, which focuses on older military aircraft and will include a re-enactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, will also proceed in October, said Bill Roach, the executive director.
"We're going to have a great show no matter what," he said, acknowledging that he expected a 20 percent drop in attendance without the Blue Angels there.
Lt. Col. Greg Moseley, the commander of the Thunderbirds, said that sequestration was "unfortunate" but that the team would do its best to fulfill the mission of spreading good will and inspiring potential recruits.
"Mission execution isn't just about flying airplanes," he said. "We're going to send out a blue uniform with a Thunderbird patch wherever we can."
At this weekend's air show in Titusville, a banner near a display of camper trailers reads "Save the Thunderbirds!" and Larry Groves, the president of Grandsport RV sales, is gathering signatures from those attending the show. "These guys fly and risk their life every day they fly," he said. "And we're not treating them right."
Few here seem to agree about what is going on or who is to blame, but no one is happy with lawmakers. Jerry Trachtman, the air show announcer, tells the crowd that this is likely to be the last Thunderbirds show of the spring and summer season, adding: "We can thank our friends in Washington. I'm sure there is something we can thank them for — I just can't think of it."
At a concession booth, Joe Foley is selling Thunderbirds and Blue Angels T-shirts and hats, along with other aviation and military knickknacks and jewelry. He travels to 30 shows a year — "before ‘see-frustration,' as we call it," he joked grimly.
"Because they can't agree, they want to make everybody hurt," Foley said. "It's all a dog and pony show."
Briawna Bailey does not know anything about sequestration. Her parents, Jeff and Rebecca, have taken Briawna and her twin brother, Logan, out of school for a day to see to see their first air show at age 6.
Briawna said she loved seeing the Thunderbirds and the aerobatic planes, and she looked into the distance when she said: "I'm thinking about, when I grow up? I might be an airplane driver."
"Pilot," her mother corrected.
"Pilot," Briawna said. "And I'll do all the tricks."