May 17, 2013

Budget cuts cast cloud over future of air shows

An industry group says air shows pump about $1.5 billion into the national economy, but without the military flyings acts, the shows don't go on.

By David Sharp / The Associated Press

BRUNSWICK — Patty Wagstaff is a Hollywood stunt pilot, three-time U.S. aerobatic champion, inductee to the National Aviation Hall of Fame and favorite on the air show circuit. One of her tricked-out planes is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

But this weekend, she's grounded.

click image to enlarge

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform at the Great State of Maine Air Show in Brunswick in 2011.

2011 Associated Press File Photo / Pat Wellenbach

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Patty Wagstaff, considered by many of her peers to be one of the best aerobatic pilots in the world, stands near the tail of her plane, an Extra 300S, during a break at an airshow in 1999.

1999 Associated Press File Photo

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Federal budget cuts that eliminated military flying acts triggered the cancellation of dozens of air shows, meaning lost income for performers, air show announcers, concessionaires, vendors and others who depend on air shows and the millions of spectators.

The cancellations also mean disappointed fans, fewer events that celebrate aviation and inspire youngsters and lost military recruiting opportunities.

"This is as American as apple pie," said Sean Tucker, another top aerobatic pilot, from Salinas, Calif. "It's the Indianapolis 500, the Fourth of July, and 'Top Gun' rolled into one."

Air shows pump about $1.5 billion into the economy and draw nearly three times more spectators than NASCAR events, according to the International Council of Air Shows.

And the biggest acts are the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds, the precision flying teams whose performances were abruptly canceled April 1, along with the Army skydiving team, military flyovers, demonstration flights and even static displays.

The cancellations caused by automatic budget cuts known as sequestration sent ripples through the industry, because the jet teams anchor most shows in which they perform.

Without them, organizers of major air shows like Wings over Wayne at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina and Skyfest 2013 at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state scheduled for this weekend, coincidentally on Armed Forces Day, opted to cancel.

Large air shows like those feature pilots pulling seemingly death-defying maneuvers in all manner of aircraft from biplanes to jets, precision formation flying, skydivers jumping from planes and, of course, screeching military jets pulling high-G maneuvers.

One of Wagstaff's signature moves is to use her plane's propeller to clip a ribbon that's stretched 22 feet above the runway – while flying upside down.

"The whole thing is just sad," said Wagstaff, of St. Augustine, Fla., who was scheduled to perform at Wings over Wayne. "I really believe that air shows are good for aviation. They expose kids to aviation, and it's the only place where you can go and touch an airplane, sit in the cockpit, talk to the pilots."

All told, 64 air shows including the Great State of Maine Air Show that depended on military participation have canceled, accounting for a loss of nearly one-third of air show revenue, and the figure could go as high as 100, said John Cudahy, the air show council's executive director.

Industry insiders believe the military jet teams will be flying again next year, but there's no guarantee from the military or Congress.

It's a huge disappointment to fans like Candace Muehleisen, a real estate broker who has attended nearly 20 air shows over the years in California and Maine, where she now lives, always arriving early to ensure she's on the front row.

Military jet pilots inspire spectators with their awe-inspiring skill while showing off the military's capabilities for taxpayers, Muehleisen said.

"It's a very positive thing for young people, just to see the skill and the beauty of what these guys can do and the training they get. It's a really, really good thing," she said.

Not everyone shares that view.

Critics like Bruce Gagnon say air shows pollute the environment, waste money and glorify war.

"It's a recruiting gimmick – a very expensive recruiting gimmick, and we think it's part of this, sadly, growing culture of militarism in our country," said Gagnon, a peace activist from Bath who served in the Air Force in the Vietnam era.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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In this July 16, 2009 file photo, Patty Wagstaff, top, and Sean D. Tucker fly over the National Museum of the United States Air Force and the National Aviation Hall of Fame, in Dayton, Ohio. Federal budget cuts that eliminated military flying acts triggered the cancellation of dozens of air shows, causing lost income for performers like Wagstaff, along with air show announcers, concessionaires, vendors and others who depend on air shows and the millions of spectators. (AP Photo/The Dayton Daily News, Ty Greenlees, File)


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