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Budget cuts force military jets to drop air shows

By Russ Bynum

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 05:18 p.m. HST, Mar 10, 2013

SAVANNAH, Ga. >> Even a rural festival celebrating the harvest of Georgia's famous sweet onions isn't safe from the federal budget battle 600 miles away, as automatic cuts are threatening to take away the star attraction for the Vidalia Onion Festival's popular air show: the Navy's daredevil fighter pilots, the Blue Angels.

The $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1 have thrown planning for the festival's air show into a tailspin, just weeks before the April 20 event that officials agreed to hold a week earlier than usual so they could book the vaunted group. The Navy plans to cancel Blue Angels shows booked next month in Vidalia and three other cities. And there is a good chance dozens more air shows across the U.S. could get the ax as well, leaving host cities facing threats of lost tourism revenue and dwindling ticket sales.

"It's going to hurt us," said Marsha Temples, chief organizer of the Vidalia air show, who estimates past festival weekends have drawn 15,000 extra people when the Blue Angels were on the bill. "People like to see the Blues because they put on an absolutely phenomenal show. You have people who actually follow them and a lot of people come from out of town just to see them."

While the Blue Angels' spring schedule is in doubt, the Air Force's formation-flying Thunderbirds and the Army's Golden Knights skydivers have canceled their performances outright. Combined, the three teams had booked more than 190 performances between the spring and fall. That's left many air show organizers scrambling to find replacements, such as civilian pilots with loud, fast jets from the Vietnam era or vintage planes from World War II. The uncertainty has forced others to simply cancel altogether.

John Cudahy, president of the Virginia-based International Council of Air Shows, said at least 150 U.S. air shows each year count on military performers to draw big crowds. A group like the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds can account for 10 to 30 percent of attendance — in some cases enough to determine if a show makes or loses money.

Canceled appearances don't just mean fewer dollars spent on tickets, souvenirs and concessions. They also mean fewer fans traveling to shows out of town and spending on hotels, restaurants and gas.

"If the military does not participate in air shows during the 2013 season, the economic impact will reach far beyond the show itself and deeply into the communities in which those shows are held," Cudahy said.

Several air shows hosted by military bases, which show off their flashiest planes for publicity and as a recruitment tool, were canceled almost immediately. They include shows at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.; Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.; Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.; Langley Air Force Base, Va.; Dover Air Force Base, Del.; and Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.

Businesses and community boosters at Pensacola Beach, Fla. — where the Blue Angels are stationed — are already trying to avert possible cancellation of the team's July show that's become one of the city's biggest tourism bonanzas. An economic impact study last year estimated the Pensacola air show lured more than 15,000 visitors in addition to the normal July weekend beach crowd of about 109,000.

Buck Lee, chairman of the Santa Rosa Island Authority that oversees Pensacola Beach, said business owners and sponsors are offering to donate $100,000 or more to pay for jet fuel and other costs if that means the Blue Angels will commit to flying.

"We have a restaurant that just opened that contacted me and said, 'We're in for $10,000 if you need it,'" Lee said. "It's a $2 million weekend for the area. That's for hotels, employees, restaurants, souvenirs. It's just a great three days out here."

While the Las Vegas-based Thunderbirds and the Golden Knights from Fort Bragg, N.C., have outright canceled their schedules beginning April 1, the Blue Angels have hedged. The team has continued training in California for upcoming March shows in El Centro, Calif., and Key West, Fla. On Monday, the team updated its Facebook page with a statement saying the Navy "intends to cancel" the Blue Angels' April performances.

Air show organizers said the Blue Angels have been unable to tell them if they will perform or not. A spokeswoman for the Navy jet team, Lt. Katie Kelly, said the Blue Angels are waiting until the last minute in the hope something will change.

Private organizers of big air shows in Dayton, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky., have vowed to continue even if military pilots are no-shows. Others have folded their tents for 2013. The Thunder Over the Blue Ridge air show scheduled for May 11-12 in Martinsburg, W.Va., was canceled after the Air Force's Thunderbirds announced they had been grounded.

Organizers of the Indianapolis Air Show also decided to pull the plug despite the Blue Angels holding out hope they might be able to fly in the show Father's Day weekend. The air show's chairman, Robert Duncan, said a $10,000 sponsor pulled out as soon as the president and Congress failed to avert the budget cuts. If the Blue Angels canceled, organizers expected the show to lose 25 percent or more of its audience. Duncan said that kind of financial blow would likely leave the show unable to cover expenses.

"They weren't committing to anything other than to say, 'We will continue to practice and fly,'" Duncan said of the Blue Angels.

The Indianapolis show, which has raised $1.3 million for charity in its 15-year history, attracted more than 65,000 spectators last year when the Thunderbirds performed.

On the South Carolina coast, the April 27-28 air show hosted by Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort remains on track — at least for now. Chief organizer Ivey Liipfert said "there's still some time to hold out hope."

More than 100,000 spectators swarm into Beaufort, a city of 12,400, for the air show. Surveys indicate more than a third of the crowd travels more than 50 miles to see it, and many spectators stay for more than three days. Liipfert said without the Blue Angels, it's possible the show would be canceled.

John Rembold, a board member of the local Chamber of Commerce, said that will definitely deprive hotels and other business of tourism dollars. It would serve as an unavoidable civics lesson, however.

"If folks have not been paying attention to the dire budget problems our nation faces," Rembolt said, "this might be a little bit of cold water in the face."


Associated Press writer Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this story.

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serious wrote:
Makes sense, but to have the Blue Angles as a recruitment tool at AF bases---stretches $$$$ thoughts!!
on March 10,2013 | 07:03AM
ssnevasail wrote:
Makes me wonder what the Obama family expensive perks, trips, etc. are being put on hold for the national good. Leadership by example??
on March 10,2013 | 08:30AM
livinginhawaii wrote:
There was a time when the arrival of these guys was considered a special event. Now that they come here every year, year after year, its becoming a common occurrence.
on March 10,2013 | 08:32AM
allie wrote:
true..and advertising and promoting militarism and imperialism was always wrong.
on March 10,2013 | 09:45AM
Pacej001 wrote:
Well said, comrade.
on March 10,2013 | 10:04AM
stingray65 wrote:
allie, I know you are one of the happiest person on this island if all Military Bases will be close. I like to see how the economy of Hawaii soon after. I hope and wish it will happen, so the the North Korea will take over.
on March 10,2013 | 10:33AM
allie wrote:
The sovereignty geeks cannot wait for that but they believe North Korea will cut Hawaiians a break. Alas, they have nothing but contempt for Hawaiians and no breaks will be given.
on March 10,2013 | 12:33PM
pcman wrote:
The primary purpose of the Navy and Air Force air demonstrations is to recruit potential "voluteers." Actually all military services benefit in recruiting from the air shows. The alternative to a all-volunteer military is to go back to the draft. Is that what you anti-military folks want? If so, keep up your anti-military complaining. The air show that we should cut back on is the campaigning and vacationing by the Obamas using Air Force One at $180,000 an hour.
on March 10,2013 | 01:48PM
DowntownGreen wrote:
It doesn't have to be an "either/or" situation. The case can be made to do BOTH.
on March 10,2013 | 02:52PM
gypsy wrote:
'bout time.
on March 10,2013 | 08:54AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
The hypocrisy of the Sequester Game is to cancel air shows, stop White House tours, decrease Arizona Memorial tours, make camping at Federal parks harder and generally try to punish the American citizen for daring to demand less spending.

How hypocritical? Well, the budget for the abject failure of the F-35 program is $400 billion so far but it does not get cancelled.

on March 10,2013 | 09:15AM
lee1957 wrote:
Budget or program cost?
on March 10,2013 | 11:18AM
kimo54 wrote:
Curtailing these events makes good sense if it will help reduce wasteful spending of military funds, and in my mind this is being thrifty. Americans can no longer expect these extravagant events to take place while some of their fellow Americans are struggling daily to survive. President Obama can lead the way and set the tone by cutting back on his trips to Hawaii....maybe change his destination to Miami instead of Honolulu. (P.S. don't laugh, I'm serious)
on March 10,2013 | 09:29AM
allie wrote:
we never wanted them anyway
on March 10,2013 | 09:46AM
stingray65 wrote:
kimo, Miami is too far. It is cheaper for tax payer if he goes back to Chicago where he belong.
on March 10,2013 | 10:36AM
ShibaiDakine wrote:
"The mission of the Blue Angels is to enhance Navy recruiting, and credibly represent Navy and Marine Corps aviation to the United States and its Armed Forces to America and other countries as international ambassadors of good wil"l -->http://www.navy.mil/navydata/aircraft/b-angels/blues.html. Given the official mission statement of the Blue Angels, it appears that it has little to do with recruiting and Navy and Marine Corps credibility and almost everything to do about fundraising for non-profits, creating tourism bonanzas, generating revenue for hotels, increasing tourism dollars, ticket, souvenir and concession sales, generating profits for air shows, and marketing festivals. Please notice not one mention of concern about a loss of military recruiting or credibility was expressed by either the military or civilians interviewed in this article.
on March 10,2013 | 11:55AM
DowntownGreen wrote:
They're a nice to have, not a need to have.
on March 10,2013 | 12:23PM
McB0B wrote:
Where are the cutbacks on greens keeping at Camp David?
on March 10,2013 | 12:35PM
environmental_lady wrote:
Air shows are such a waste of resources, especially jet fuel. And they stink. Money would be better spent keeping air control tower personnel instead of reductions which will bring long waits and reduce airline safety. I wish all air shows would be canceled and the money saved to be spent on airline safety
on March 10,2013 | 12:57PM
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