Dark clouds over air shows after budget cuts

BRUNSWICK, Maine — 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.

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 a 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.

Not all air shows are being canceled. And many in the air show business will do fine this summer.

Tucker, who’s performing over Memorial Day weekend at the Jones Beach Air Show in New York, said corporate sponsors are trying to line up smaller events to fill his schedule after eight of his 20 shows were canceled.

For others, it’s a bigger deal.

In Tallahassee, Fla., Bob Anderson and his family operate a six-figure business selling T-shirts at air shows. Business was so good for his product line that focused almost exclusively on the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds that he upgraded to a motor home for his seasonal business travel.

Instead, the motor home is parked, and he’s installing floors.

“People are very bitter now,” he said. “I’m very saddened by everything that’s going on because we’ve worked hard to get to where we are, and we’ve been shut down by no fault of our own.”

Air show announcer Rob Reider, of Cincinnati, lost half his season, which is his primary source of income. “Am I angry? Yes, because it’s hurting me,” he said. “If something doesn’t brighten up by the end of this year, I’ll be looking to do other things and air shows will become a backburner business.”

The losses carry on down the line to the concessionaires who feed spectators, vendors who provide hundreds of portable toilets, rental car companies that supply vehicles, hotels that house pilots and crews, and providers of aviation fuel.

In Brunswick, the canceled Great State of Maine Air Show had a budget of about $750,000. Last year’s show paid out $31,000 for motel rooms for Air Force Thunderbirds team alone.

“It’s a little issue on a national level, but it’s a big issue locally. It’s a big weekend for us,” said Steve Levesque, executive director of the agency that organizes the show. “A lot of people were angry that we shut it down, but we didn’t have any other choice.”

For Reider and the pilots like Tucker and Wagstaff, the air shows cancellations mean losses that aren’t easily calculated.

The shows tend to inspire young people, serve as a demonstration and recruiting tool for the military, and provide wholesome entertainment for families, they said.

“The metaphor of flight is about pushing boundaries; that’s what we do as Americans,” Tucker said. “It really disappoints me that because of politics, opportunities to be patriotic have been lost to millions and millions of people. What’s the price of that?”

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