The Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team flies in formation during SkyFest 2014 at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., on May 31. (Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes/Air Force)
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For a schedule of the Blue Angels’ and Thunderbirds’ appearances, go to MilitaryTimes.com/2014airshows.
Everyone in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is still buzzing about the Navy Blue Angels’ performance at the big air show June 1.
But at this time last year, organizers were wondering if there would even be an air show.
And while this year’s air show season kicks off with reports of record attendance so far, many still worry about the future of one of America’s oldest entertainment industries even as it tries to evolve in a new era of military cutbacks.
For good reason. Just up the road in Eau Claire, this time last year officials had just announced the cancellation of their air festival, one of dozens across the country last year to pull the plug as the Pentagon clipped the wings of its entire fleet of high-flying performance teams.
The Air Force Thunderbirds, for example, were to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their afterburner-fueled, crowd-wowing stunt squadron, but had to jettison their schedule just as the season was kicking off.
Under the massive, across-the-board government budget cuts known as sequestration, the Blue Angels suffered the same fate — as did many other air show military regulars, including smaller “tactical demonstration” flights, parachute teams and even ground displays of aircraft and other military hardware.
Many wondered if it was the start of an air show apocalypse. Indeed, unable to bear the loss of their A-list superstars for even a single season, some organizers appear to have folded up their runway-side tents for good. Among the biggest casualties is the annual Indianapolis Air Show, which canceled last year’s show after the Thunderbirds backed out.
Without income from that one event, managers say they couldn’t afford the small staff that would have done fundraising and organizing to produce this year’s show.
“Current circumstances indicate that it is impracticable to produce future air shows,” organizers said in a statement announcing Indy’s air show was grounded for good.
About 25 airshows — almost 10 percent of the total — suffered a similar fate, says John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows.
Yet those that remain report that ticket sales have never been better.
“Our attendance was up about 20 percent from our last show with comparable weather,” says Ron Schmal, air boss of La Crosse’s Deke Slayton Airfest. “With all the cuts, I think most people are worried the days of the air show may be numbered, that this might be the last hurrah. They wanted to come see one while they still could.”
Meanwhile, air show organizers say they’re learning the hard way not to count on the military. Indeed, cutbacks are still hurting smaller shows that relied on single-aircraft performances and static displays of military aircraft and gear, almost all of which remain grounded.
New crowd pleasers
To survive, Cudahy says, air shows big and small are finding new ways to wow the crowds, including:
Outside help. Next year, air show organizers are recruiting the France-based Breitling Jet Team across the country. Flying seven Czechoslovakian-built L-39 Albatros warbird jets, this will be the team’s first tour of U.S. air shows. Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds — the CT-114 Tutor-flying version of the Thunderbirds — already are doing more U.S. shows this year.
Vintage air support. Vintage warbirds performing mock dogfights have long been a part of most air shows. But taking a page from the Civil War re-enactment community, organizers are playing up World War II ground battle scenes — often with hundreds of “troops” maneuvering alongside tanks and other gear — as vintage aircraft fly overhead in support.
On-the-ground thrills. Some shows are starting to book sideshow carnivals. While that draws criticism from those who say such terrestrial amusements dilute and distract from an air show’s traditional high-flying focus, organizers say its a way to draw more diverse crowds who might not otherwise come to a pure air show.
Monster aircraft. Picture an old World War I-era biplane with a jet engine strapped to its belly, and you’ve got the “Screamin’ Sasquatch,” one of the latest aircraft versions of a “monster truck” making the rounds this year. “It looks like something Wile E. Coyote would have built to try and catch the Roadrunner,” Cudahy says.
Still starving for the military
With the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds back in action this year, alongside the Army Golden Knights and Navy Leap Frogs parachute teams, “so far, we’re doing far better than we could have ever imagined. ... Attendance is up across the board,” says Cudahy, who notes that all the focus on cuts and closures last year is paradoxically fueling renewed interest in air shows across the country.
Still, with some 275 air shows this year, “no more than 75 will get appearances by the Blues or Thunderbirds,” he says. “Most of the remaining shows are starving to death for a military performance.”
For example, there will be no single-aircraft appearances by the F/A-18 Hornet this year. The F-16 Fighting Falcon will appear at only eight events, all Air Force base open houses. The Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier jump jet and V-22 Osprey also are making limited appearances.
Which aircraft make the air show list is often as much about future funding politics as it is about here-and-now budget savings, Cudahy says. The Air Force is trying to save the fuel-sucking F-22 Raptor from production cuts, for example, so it’s in the air show mix this year with about 20 appearances. But the service is trying to unload its fleet of A-10 Thunderbolts, so the less-costly-to-fly aircraft better known as the Warthog is MIA this year.
Even with the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds back in the game, the military’s overall in-the-air contributions to air shows are down by about half, Cudahy says.
Add to that on-the-ground static displays of aircraft and other military hardware that are still missing from most shows, and “it’s more like 70 percent less.”
“After the draconian cuts of last year it was widely understood that this was more about what the military called the ‘optics’ of these aircraft being involved than any actual savings,” Cudahy says. In other words, it just looked bad.
Military misses opportunties
But he says it also deprived the Pentagon of prime opportunities for troops and their gear to mix and mingle with the American public, and show them what all their tax dollars are paying for — not to mention inspire a new generation of young people to join.
The folks in La Crosse noticed the absence. “Usually with the Blue Angels, we would have also had an Air Force F-16 demo and display,” says Schmal, and probably a KC-135 or an A-10 for static display from local reserve units.
“Folks really love getting up close with those aircraft and talking with the troops,” he says.
Those simple interactions may not draw the big crowds, “but it’s what keeps them here.”
But not this year: “We couldn’t even get a Humvee from the Marine Corps.”
But at least they had something this year, which is more than the folks up near Eau Claire can say.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t make the list,” says Matt Hill, chief organizer of the Chippewa Valley Airshow.
Without some kind of military appearance to build around, he says, “we just can’t do a show. We’ll apply again next year. Hopefully, we’ll get something eventually.”
In the here and now, that means improvements to the local Boy Scout camp with the money they expected to raise from the show will have to wait. But perhaps on a more important level, Hill wonders about people like local high school senior Kelsey Ackerman.
This fall, she is on her way to start her first year as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, with dreams of becoming a pilot or maybe even the Navy’s first female SEAL. A local sports and academic superstar, she also was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy.
Asked recently what inspired her military ambitions, she told her local paper it was the goose bumps she got watching the Blue Angels at the Eau Claire show.