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March 07, 2013

Budget Cuts Ground US Military's Precision Flying Teams

by Carolyn Presutti

U.S. military demonstration flight teams, like the Air Force's "Thunderbirds" and the Navy's "Blue Angels," are facing tough decisions under the federal spending cuts known as sequestration.  The Thunderbirds have canceled their entire air show schedule starting April 1, including a planned visit to the Asia- Pacific region. These military “ambassadors” are scrambling to keep up their flying proficiency.

An estimated 15 million people at air shows in the US and abroad this year will not see the fast-flying squadrons.  The cuts are grounding both teams.

This year the Thunderbirds were planning 60 demonstrations for their 60th anniversary, including shows in South Korea, Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines.

But right now, all the pilots can do is practice these maneuvers for their final two March shows.

Major Darrick Lee of the Thunderbirds says his team will switch their focus after April 1 to being local ambassadors near their base in Nevada. The rest of the schedule is canceled for 2013 both stateside and worldwide.

“When you are talking about going internationally, it’s not so much about recruiting as it is to bolster the relationship with the existing Air Force contingent overseas and their partners nearby,” Lee said.

“We see it on our FB page every day: 'when are you coming to this country, when are you coming to this country.'”

Lieutenant Katie Kelly says the navy’s Blue Angels will stand down all of April and don't have direction beyond that.  But even if Congress approves a budget, pilots must re-acclimate to high gravitational forces during their aerobatic maneuvers.   

“That’s why we fly six days a week, so they have that tolerance, their “g” tolerance.  So, if the team is down for an extended period of time, it would require training to ramp the team back up so they continue to perform safely,” Kelly said.

Both the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds will perform at two air shows before the budget cuts force them to land away from their fans.