Aviation News

December 2, 2011

New US Air Force Budget Grounds Airshow Demonstration Teams

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By: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren
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B-2 Spirit, one aircraft of which will not be seen in the 2012 airshow season. (Photo by Brandon Farris)
B-2 Spirit, one aircraft of which will not be seen in the 2012 airshow season. (Photo by Brandon Farris)
The US Air Force will cut five of its six single-ship demonstration teams for the 2012 airshow season, according to a statement released Thursday on the Air Combat Command website.

US Air Force A-10 Team pilot Joe Rifle Shetterly

(Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Citing budget constraints, only the Air Force’s flagship aircraft—the F-22 Raptor—survived the chopping block, subsequently banishing the A-10 Warthog East and West, F-16 Viper East and West, and the F-15E Sentry Eagle teams to the history books, at least for the 2012 airshow season.

Up in the Air

The decision leaves the success of the 2012 season up in the air only weeks after the 2011 season drew to a close. The statement projects a savings of more than 900 sorties that would have otherwise been flown by the teams—900 sorties of which will not be hitting the circuit this year. While none of the USAF’s multi-ship teams, which include the iconic Thunderbirds and the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation programs, were significantly affected by the cuts, the budget blast will leave a number of airshows without a big-ticket, high-powered performer—like the F-16 Viper—to anchor the show.

Small and mid-sized shows across the country who often “rely on these assets will experience a significant reduction in visitors and sponsors,” said a seasoned airshow organizer who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly. Additionally, “for the organizations that don’t have private owners to tap [to fill the show-bill], this will impart a very negative impact on not only the show itself but the community that has come to expect the economics benefits of having the show in town,” the source said.

Chris Trobridge, a member of the Commemorative Air Force with strong ties to the airshow community, agrees. “Unfortunately…this will hurt airshow attendance and sponsorship. The draw of the demo teams was always very high and, without them, I do not know how many people in the general public will want to attend shows of [only] warbirds and aerobatics performances.”

As goes the money, so go the airplanes. Without big, military-issue afterburners, sponsors will be less likely to buy into the show. Consequently, many shows will be sent scrambling to shore up enough support to drop a civilian act into the anchor slot. But private acts do not come cheap, with the crowd-drawing jet acts often running at several thousand dollars per hour.

Someone to Look Up To

It is not just the airshow circuit that will lose out as a result of the cuts, though. Indeed, the Air Force itself stands to come out on the losing end of the deal. With less presence in the public eye, the branch will lose a substantial channel by which to connect to the nation it serves.

Considered a powerful tool for recruitment, “[the single ship demo teams] make you feel directly connected to those who are fighting tooth and nail for our interests abroad. They create a fire in your gut, a powerful sense of exhilaration and patriotic defiance,” says defense blogger Ty Rogoway, owner of AviationIntel.com. “They are much more real, down to earth, and approachable than their flawless Thunderbird counterparts,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the result will be the USAF experiencing a reduction in new recruits,” the anonymous airshow organizer said.

But while disappointed, the organizer was undeterred. “I can work with this sacrifice—if it is just for one year. Our show will go on.” the source said.