GUEST EDITORIAL By PHILIP HANDLEMAN
Sequestration is forcing the Pentagon to slash $41 billion this year on top of the $487 billion reduction in defense spending already mandated over the next 10 years. Resultantly, a cruel triage within the Defense Department has taken hold. Communities across America are waking to the reality that their scheduled airshows will not feature military air demonstration teams or that, in the absence of the teams, the shows themselves are being scrubbed altogether.
Depending on how you count, there are up to 350 full-fledged airshows during a normal year. Already several dozen have been cancelled due to the withdrawal of military participation. Hurt the most in this $1.5 billion industry are hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, program booklet printers, hotdog-stand operators, souvenir sellers, announcers, and, of course, performers.
These are exactly the kinds of entrepreneurs and small businesses that must be energized if the stalled economy is ever to bounce back. The inimical ripple effect even cramps charities that depend on show proceeds to fund their admirable activities. Imagine the outcry if other popular outdoor sporting events like NASCAR and professional baseball underwent similar closures.
Airshows are the only way most taxpayers get to see their investment in national defense up close. In fact, with less than 1% of the nation’s population in uniform, airshows provide the only practical means for most citizens to interact with service personnel. If public support of the armed forces is desirable, as the administration and lawmakers commonly assert, then it’s incongruent to sever the principal points of connectivity between civilians and the military.
The Navy’s Blue Angels, the Air Force’s Thunderbirds and the Army’s Golden Knights were formed in 1946, 1953 and 1959, respectively, which means they have become integral to their services. Tradition is a key aspect of the military ethos. Curtailing such iconic symbols harms morale.
The teams enhance professionalism within their services because they give fellow service members added impetus to attain the highest standard. Pilots, mechanics and other specialists in all branches hone their skills to be considered for selection by the teams. The excellence exhibited at shows isn’t automatic, but achieved through hard work by extraordinarily talented and motivated individuals whose example improves efficiencies service-wide.
From time to time, the military’s jet and skydiving teams have performed in foreign skies. The aerial pageantry and the after-hours interaction with local residents have spread goodwill. These high-profile “ambassadors” are exceptional instruments of diplomacy.
During the budget debates, lest anyone forget, the two military jet teams each cost less than $40 million a year to operate, a mere pittance measured against the military’s $673 billion in fiscal 2013 outlays. To maximize exposure, the teams rarely overlap appearances as they perform annually at as many as 35 venues apiece in front of more than 11 million spectators. In this era of an all-volunteer force, there could hardly be better, more cost-effective recruiting tools.
The air demonstration teams are dramatic reminders of America’s unparalleled might. The nixed flying performances send an unwitting message of eroded American prowess to real and potential adversaries. Resurrecting the show schedules would help to reverse that impression.
Until recently, youngsters at airshows got to experience the excitement of modern fighters roaring overhead. The video game versions hardly compare to the real-world burst of jet plumes filling a summer sky, the whoosh of engines tingling one’s innards and the sweet aroma of kerosene-laced fuel wafting in the air. Beyond the scope of the bureaucracy’s spreadsheets are the intangibles like the spark that fires a young person’s dreams of soaring skyward.
On the afternoon of May 29, the celebratory hat-toss by the graduating cadets at the Air Force Academy was not accompanied by the traditional Thunderbirds flyover. Instead, the aerial display was courtesy of volunteer pilots in privately-owned antique military planes. The academy’s alumni association even took up a collection to defray the costs of this unconventional sky-borne salute so that the cadets would have something inspirational to cast their gaze upon when it came time for the toss.
When patriots feel impelled to go begging to foster key aerial displays, it should be a wake-up call to policymakers. It’s time to bring back the military air demonstration teams. In war, we expect the teams’ men and women to vanquish our enemies, so at home it shouldn’t be too much to ask that they be empowered to fulfill the basic axiom of a Broadway troupe: The show must go on!
Philip Handleman, the author of 22 aviation books and the photographer whose pictures graced the postage stamps honoring the 50th anniversaries of the Air Force and the Air Force Academy, has flown in airshows and has served on the airshow committee of a military air base.