Thunderbirds Bow Out of Air, Water Show

Sequestration battle forces military air show teams to cancel, curtail schedules

Every year, thousands flock to Chicago’s lakefront for the annual Air and Water Show. Many come only to see the featured performances of military demonstration teams like the Air Force Thunderbirds, the Navy Blue Angels, and the Army Golden Knights.

This year, those spectators may very well stay home.

Because of the sequestration battle which has pulled billions from the federal budget, the military air show teams are canceling or severely curtailing their schedules. And in the case of the Chicago show, the marquis performer has sent word that they won’t be attending.

"Due to the impact of sequestration, all participation in air shows and flyovers after April 1 have been canceled," said Maj. Darrick Lee, spokesman for the Air Force Thunderbirds. "We’re still hoping to be flying again in the future, and we’re going to be ready when that time comes. But it’s just looking like that’s not going to happen in the 2013 season."

Loss of such a marquee event could be costly for tourism dollars, and the millions spent by attendees at nearby hotels and restaurants. Officially, the City of Chicago says it has received no word that the Thunderbirds will be a no-show, and they insist they would fill out the schedule with civilian groups if no military team was available.

"The show is going on as planned," said Mary May, a spokesman for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. "Certainly if we have to make adjustments we are prepared to do so."

Indeed, as of Monday night, photos of the Thunderbirds and Golden Knights were still on the City of Chicago’s Air Show website. But Lee said there should be no confusion about the Thunderbirds’ message.

"The Thunderbirds want to be very clear that planning that goes on for air shows, whether hosted by civilian sites or military sites, should be organized with the understanding that the Thunderbirds will not be participating past the first of April."

The Army Golden Knights parachute team has also indicated the sequestration will be affecting their 2013 schedule. The Thunderbirds said in a statement that “pilots will take every opportunity to train in an effort to maintain their proficiency,” and that “the intent is to ensure the squadron is ready to resume demonstrations the moment sequestration is ended.” But Lee said that should not be interpreted as an indication that they would be able to pick up the schedule at mid-season.

"The logistical support and all those other things that go into making jets get up in the air safely to put on a good demonstration, if you turn that off and let it sit for a while, it’s not going to be ready at the flick of a switch," he said.

This season was to be a celebration of the Thunderbirds’ 60th anniversary. Lee said if need be, they will channel that celebration into support for other areas of Air Force aviation.

"I do know the decision was made to make sure that they are allowed to allot time for our combat pilots and combat aviators to maintain their mission," he said. "If we have to stop our flying after April 1 to make sure that the folks downrange have the support they need, then we are proud to do that."

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