The show must go on


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.


  1. Jim Klick says

    WOW !!!!
    I thought this was an aviation forum.
    Fritz rants from his ivory tower, Charlie responds, and Fritz calls his parentage into
    I think I will go back to the Harley Davidson/Honda forum
    At least they are polite.

    • Fritz Katz says

      Klick and Klack… I mean JK and Beck (perfect name for someone living to demean Our President rather than face facts) … where did I question Charlie’s “parentage” rather than his transparently selfish, airplane-salesman-driven greed and refusal to face the reality of Bush-era-triggered fiscal chaos transmitted through sequestration to the hard choices we face today?
      PS Telling you three to pay (as I will — not living in an ivory tower but the real world) an extra dollar cover charge for the world’s largest members-only (99.9%), admission-charged av party is not a “rant”… though it seems so if your ox is being gored and your indefensible rationales deflated.

  2. Fritz Katz says

    A damn shame, I agree …
    especially the AF Academy thing…

    but $40 million here,

    $40 million there,

    and pretty soon you’re talking real money!

    This all could have been avoided if the teabaggers hadn’t blackmailed republicans into signing a no new taxes pledge — even for multi-millionaires presently paying less tax than their butlers — which sank the eminently reasonable Simpson-Bowles compromise.

    How cheap and in denial ARE the 1%ers? Rather than pay an extra dollar or two for EAA OSH ATC services this year, that same crowd now excoriates the FAA for temporarily scaling back their prior largesse while the offshoring bizjetters amorally cheer AOPA/RNC mouthpiece Fuller’s blatant lying about the Presidential budget’s $100 flight fee proposal.

    I know DoD has faced harsher cuts before and survived but I won’t fault them for prioritizing this way this time.

    Digging out of the Bush-induced deficit abyss is a tough challenge requiring tough choices.

    Grounding demo teams was regrettably both fiscally necessary and (in a way ironically similar to their prior/future value you illustrated so well) effectively symbolic.

    DON’T bring them back until real compromise is reached and long term budget/deficit cures are in place.

    • Charlie Masters says

      Interesting article with an equally interesting reply. Phillip laments the loss of the demonstration teams and Fritz blames it on sequester. These opinions are representative of the narrative existing in the aviation community and while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts.

      No doubt the demonstration teams have inspired many a young’un to want to join the military but the current speculation is the last fighter pilot has already been born. The future of military aviation will likely be unmanned aerial systems. Maybe those looking for a career flying in the military would better spend their time on the computer than at the airport.

      His comparison with airshows to NASCAR was particularly enlightening. The airshows conducted at airports by military demonstration teams that are highly dependent on public financing. NASCAR tracks are privately owned, the cars are privately owned and the drivers themselves are small businesses who will thrive on their success or fail if they are not competitive. While I agree airports are important parts of the public infrastructure (a mile of highway gets you – well – a mile, while a mile of runway gets you anywhere). Can we afford to have demonstration teams whose primary purpose is to turn Jet-A into noise while the country has roads full of potholes and interstate bridges falling into rivers? There ARE people who are making their living as airshow pilots. To me seeing one, two, three or more propeller driven airplanes performing aerobatics in front of me is far more exciting than watching jets whoosh by to disappear into the haze until they make what usually amounts to another noisy low pass.

      Does Fritz work for MSNBC? His rant is a reason why we have such polarized government. Going back and blaming Bush is hilarious on its face as the demonstration teams were cancelled by the current administration’s stated policy to “punish” lawmakers for the sequester (whose genesis by the way was the administration’s) by making the cuts as “painful” as possible. I am looking for a single multimillionaire that pays less in taxes than their butler, and I doubt he can find one either as the top 1% of earners pay over 35% of the taxes. I am willing to bet the fuel taxes paid as GA ventures to Oshkosh this year will more than pay for the ATC services required and I am guessing he has never filled up a jet with fuel to understand how much these kerosene burners are paying for their use of the national airspace system.

      We live (for at least the time being) in a republic. It is up to each of us to contact our representatives (including the president) and inform them how we want to prioritize the public money. For me? Fix the potholes, maintain our bridges and runways, I can pass on the Blue Angels.

      • Fritz Katz says

        Your Fatted Ox being gored a bit lately, is it, Charlie?

        Start paying your actual share for the avbiz activities on which your income depends instead of expecting minimum wage WalMart clerks to carry your considerable load… and that of your multi-millionaire clients.

        “Rant”? “MSNBC”? Go Fokker yourself, salesman. Bastion of credibility. You?

        But before you choke the chicken, choke on these FACTS you tried to ignore/deride:

        Your complete absolution of Bush is prima facie “hilarious”, not my citing him for contributory fiscal negligence.

        Are we still digging out of a Bush-authorized financial abyss or was everything just as surplus-peachy when Obama took over as when Bush began?

        Did/does Craig “RNC” Fuller lie about the $100 fee or not? [CAREFUL… I’ve personally witnessed it and can find it in print also]

        Did Republican obeisance to teabagger demands for a no taxes pledge derail the Simpson-Bowles compromise which would have averted sequestration… or not?

        And why is it SO hard for you selfish morons to comprehend that the gallonage taxes are calculated and assessed to pay for typical everyday incremental enroute services costs… not the unique and intensive ATC whirlwind at the world’s largest, members-only, admission-charged fly in? And to come up with one dollar each to cover it during a tight budget year?

        As for butlers and millionaires, I stand by my claim which will be easy for you to verify independently. Just ask some of your job-offshoring, Cayman Island asset-hiding, capital gains income-reliant multimillionaire clients what average tax rate they’ve paid in recent years and then what their butlers paid? Your hero Bishop Romney admitted paying 13% while his secretary was at 28%.

        PS I’ve PERSONALLY OUT OF POCKET and proudly paid to fill up a B-17 with fuel (and then burned it off on a straight-line low-altitude VFR rural XC with no approaches and only two tower calls) so don’t come crying to me about cost/benefit.

        • says

          Fritz “the Cat”? I take it your satisfied with this dude in the White House who likes to “give away the store”? Oh, are “dueling” pistols still around?

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