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Navy Blue Angels fly into era of budget questions

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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / SEPT. 26, 2010
The Blue Angels were in town, and there was no way to known where or when they would show up. I was on a Kaneohe tennis court one day and brought my camera just in case. As I played a match, the jets zoomed overhead and I ran off the court to get this photo. — Craig T. Kojima

PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. » The Navy’s Blue Angels have been thrilling audiences for more than six decades with their acrobatic flying in fighter planes, but a new era of federal budget worries and proposed deficit cutting has some inside and outside the military raising questions about the millions it costs to produce their shows.

Some want the popular shows grounded and some readers of the Air Force Times newspaper — most of them active or retired service members — recently listed eliminating the Blue Angels and similar programs as one way to cut defense spending.

The Pentagon spends $37 million for the Blue Angels, whose mission is to enhance recruiting for the Navy and Marines and to be their public goodwill ambassador. That’s a fraction of the Pentagon’s $926 billion annual budget, but that’s not the point, critics say. They argue that lots of smaller programs will have to be eliminated to meet required spending reductions.

Automatic cuts triggered by the collapse of the debt supercommittee in Washington this week combined with spending reductions previously hammered out by President Barack Obama and Congress mean that the Pentagon would be looking at nearly $1 trillion in cuts to projected spending over 10 years.

The Air Force’s Thunderbirds and the Army’s Golden Knights paratroopers also perform big public shows.

"It goes to show the scale of the Department of the Defense budget — the defense department always goes big," said Laura Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based group Taxpayers for Common Sense. She said the money could be better spent on other programs. "The point is to look at all federal spending. We can no longer afford the wants; we have to look at the needs."

But Capt. Greg McWherter, the Blue Angels’ commander, said his team fills a vital national security role by improving morale, helping with recruiting and presenting a public face for the nation’s 500,000 sailors and Marines. The Navy says about 11 million people see the squadron’s F/A-18 fighter jets scream and twist overhead during each year’s show season, from March through November.

"We still live in a country that has an all-volunteer force. Everyone that signs up to join the military does so because they were motivated and inspired; maybe it was an aunt or an uncle, maybe it was a teacher or maybe it was the Blue Angels, you never know," he said.

"It is difficult to put a price on that and on the number of young men and women inspired by a performance." But, he said, it helps ensure "that the Navy and the Marine Corps is strong 10 to 15 years from now."

Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the conservative think tank Lexington Institute in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, said it is very unlikely anyone in Congress would specifically target the Blue Angels because the team is so popular.

"I think any legislator who called for eliminating the Blue Angels would be digging and digging through emails filled with outrage," he said.

But he said it is possible spending for the Blue Angels, Air Force Thunderbirds and other military promotional programs could be curtailed under a larger umbrella bill as Congress and the administration look for ways to cut federal spending.

"No provision specifically aimed at cutting the Blue Angels will ever pass, but that doesn’t mean the Blue Angels are safe from budget cuts," he said.

Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, who represents the Pensacola base and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said it’s the popularity of the Blue Angels that will keep the program alive.

"You can ask the hundreds of thousands of people who come out each weekend and see them fly and know they aren’t going anywhere," he said.

It’s already been a tough 65th year for the Blue Angels, who are based at Pensacola Naval Air Station on the Florida Panhandle.

McWherter, who commanded the team from November 2008 through 2010, returned in May when his replacement, Cmdr. Dave Koss, resigned after flying below minimum altitude at a Virginia air show. Koss realized the mistake and pulled out of the maneuver but the error, which could have caused a crash, prompted an internal investigation and a monthlong safety stand-down, which forced the Blue Angels to cancel their traditional fly-over at the Naval Academy’s graduation in Annapolis, Md.

Koss resigned from the team, saying he had not met "the airborne standard that makes the Blue Angels the exceptional organization that it is." The Blue Angels last had a fatal accident in 2007 when a pilot lost control of his F/A-18 and crashed outside a Marine base in Beaufort, S.C.

A September crash of a civilian plane at a Nevada air race killed 11 spectators and the pilot, raising the public’s awareness of what can go wrong when airplanes and spectators mix.

McWherter told The Associated Press in a recent interview that safety has to be the team’s primary goal. The air shows in which the Blue Angels perform are different from air races like the one in Nevada, he said. Blue Angels follow strict FAA guidelines for each show and maintain a standard safety zone from crowds, he said. The Blue Angels performances are designed to appear dangerous and exciting for those watching from the ground, but the shows are carefully choreographed and performed by experts.

The Navy demonstration team began after World War II when Adm. Chester W. Nimitz wanted to continue support for naval aviation during peacetime and spotlight the Navy and Marines for potential recruits who live far from Navy bases.

The 2011 budget funded 70 performances at 35 cities around the United States, including Great Falls, Mont., Millington, Tenn., and Ypsilanti, Mich. The blue and gold jets twist, turn, drop from the sky and roar into the clouds in perfect formation for 45 minutes.

More than 100,000 people attended the Blue Angels end-of-season performance on Nov. 11 and 12 at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the Blue Angels are important because they show the incredible skill level of U.S. military.

He said he thinks of the Blue Angels as "ambassadors for not just the Navy but for the entire American military across this country and around the world."

"We get way more than our money’s worth for what they do," he said.

Fans who watched the team perform this summer at the team’s annual Pensacola Beach show agreed.

Bryan Johnson and his family from Lubbock, Texas, watched from beneath a beach umbrella as the team streaked over the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think (The Blue Angels) are a good way to get guys to want to join the military, especially those with college education who want to go in and fly the planes," Bryan Johnson said.

The only proof of the Blue Angels appeal and success that Lori Johnson needed was the crowd on the beach.

"This airshow is more popular today than it was 20 years ago. Everyone is here to support the military in some fashion," she said.

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