By Ledyard King, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Wave goodbye to the military air show, America’s muscle-flex of aerial might.
At least for now.
The automatic budget cuts that are expected to furlough federal workers, reduce access to national parks and cut social programs also threaten to ground the nation’s elite flight squadrons: the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.
Both aerial teams are preparing to fly their final demonstrations March 24 in Florida: the Blue Angels in Key West and the Thunderbirds in Titusville near Cape Canaveral.
The budget cuts raise an important question: Is it worth keeping these iconic teams in the air when the nation’s soaring debt is forcing drastic cuts in government programs, including military readiness?
The answer from the armed forces and scores of communities that host the air shows is an emphatic yes.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, a spokesman for the vice chief of naval operations, said the allure of the Blue Angels has helped convince thousands of young Americans — including himself — to enlist in the Navy. And it’s helped build support in areas of the country where there is no Navy presence, he said.
“The opportunity for us to demonstrate the talent that their Navy has and to talk to them about the role that naval aviation plays in the wars and all over the world is extremely valuable in helping Americans understand what their Navy does on a day-to-day basis,” Servello said.
In a defense budget of more than $500 billion, eliminating the performances will produce relatively small savings: $28 million for the Angels and nearly $10 million for the Thunderbirds.
But it’s hard to justify ceremonial expenses when the Pentagon is furloughing civilian workers and cutting back deployments to slash $46 billion through Sept. 30, said Todd Harrison, a defense spending expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent think tank.
“As a strictly budget matter, these are low priority from a military perspective,” he said. “Flyovers and air shows don’t help you defend the nation.”
It’s not just air shows being canceled. Flyovers for military funerals, service academy graduations and other official events also have been scrubbed from April 1 to Sept. 30 and, in some cases, beyond.
The Blue Angels are canceling performances at 29 venues between April and September. The Thunderbirds, based at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, have announced they’re scrubbing more than 60 demonstrations at 38 locations between March and November, including several overseas.
Dozens of communities, including Cocoa Beach, Fla., Burlington, Vt., and Indianapolis, which counted on the aerial acrobats to generate thrills and business revenue will have to wait until next year unless Congress acts to undo the sequestration spending cuts.
That’s bad news for communities where attendance at air shows typically rises between 15 and 30 percent when the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds are featured, said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, Inc.
“They are our Rolling Stones and the air show season without them loses something pretty significant,” he said.
Several shows already have canceled, including one in May at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., which had booked the Blue Angels.
Even if Pentagon chiefs wanted to keep the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds in the air, the 9-percent across-the-board spending cuts offer little flexibility, officials and analysts say.
The pot of money that covers flying hours for the Thunderbirds, for example, also pays for training and combat sorties, said Air Force Lt. Col. William “Brett” Ashworth. Canceling flyovers through September frees up money to fund about 1,520 flights.
As a recruiting squadron commander, Ashworth saw firsthand the Thunderbirds’ influence on potential enlistees. But he said he also understands the budget math confronting the Pentagon.
“Ultimately, it’s a decision based on flying hours,” Ashworth said. “In this fiscal environment we’re in, we had to make some tough choices. It came back to prioritizing those limited flying hours and this was what the Air Force thought was the best way to do that.”
In Pensacola, Fla., where the Blue Angels are based, the flying team headlines a summer air show that draws thousands of visitors from more than 20 states.
An economic impact study of the 2012 Blue Angels Pensacola Beach Airshow concluded that it generated about $2.4 million for the local economy along with $622,000 in wages paid to employees.
Many communities that feature flyovers by the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds will take a financial hit, said Rod Lewis, who runs the University of West Florida Haas Center that conducted the Pensacola study.
Lewis thinks the cancellations are helping the Obama administration make a point. Administration officials have often said sequestration will have a tangible impact on average citizens.
“The military wants to drive home the notion that this matters to everybody,” he said. “I don’t think the Blue Angels are a critical national security element. But they are a critical PR element. It’s something that’s certainly getting a lot of traction (because) it’s close to home for a lot of people.”
One of those people is Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and represents the western Florida panhandle, including Pensacola.
Miller said he doesn’t want to see the Navy ground the Blue Angels. But he also said the national debt has grown so large — now eclipsing $16.5 trillion — that he’s reluctantly willing to go along with the Pentagon’s proposal to scrub a number of scheduled air shows, including the annual July 4th show in Pensacola.
“I want to see the Blue Angels fly as much as anybody else, but this country is in a serious financial position,” Miller said recently. “And if the only way that we can get control of spending is through sequestration, I’m ready to go in that direction.”
Cudahy, of the Air Shows council, is advising the air shows not to announce the withdrawal of the elite squadrons — or cancel altogether — if there’s still a possibility Congress could restore the cuts.
“We’re encouraging them to be flexible and to not make decisions until they have to make decisions,” he said. “There’s no telling how this is going to work out. And the military doesn’t even know themselves.”
The Cocoa Beach Air & Space Show, for example, is still advertising the Thunderbirds for its October show.
Ashworth, the Air Force spokesman, said the Thunderbirds could mobilize quickly if those cuts were rescinded. But he also said it’s too early to tell how sequestration, in effect through 2021, will affect participation in next year’s air shows.
Harrison, with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said it may be time to reconsider the value of such ceremonial programs. He also questions the millions the Pentagon spends each year on bands.
Does he think discarding decades of tradition would fly with Congress and the public?
“It’s hard to say because the real value of these thing is symbolic and it’s something that would be hard to measure in terms of impact on recruiting and things like national pride, especially when they go overseas,” he said of the aerial teams. “It’s hard to put a price on that. But it does make you wonder whether this is where we should be spending our money.”