The Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels air demonstration teams will once again fly in America’s air shows next year after being grounded by sequestration cuts earlier this year, Pentagon officials said.
The Pentagon has decided to resume its military community outreach programs, but pared down the number of events significantly in light of new budget realities.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the resumption of the activities in a memo issued to the chiefs of the military services last Friday. In a copy of the memo obtained by ABC News, Hagel said, “community and public outreach is a crucial Departmental activity that reinforces trust and confidence in the United States Military and in its most important asset — people.”
“It is our obligation to sustain that trust well into the future,” he added.
The sequestration cuts earlier this year led to the cancellation of 2,800 military outreach events nationwide. In his memo, Hagel outlined a resumption of appearances by the military’s jet and jump demonstration teams, military band concerts, ceremonial unit appearances, port visits, service weeks, and nonprofit and corporate leader outreach.
The activities “showcase our superior combat power, demonstrate readiness to defend the nation, and help to preserve the all-volunteer force,” Hagel said.
But the resumption will only be possible because of a 45-percent reduction in the number of events from last year that will result in savings of $104 million in fiscal year 2014 and $1 billion over the next decade. The reduction will also continue over the next decade in an effort to allow them to continue despite the $500 billion in sequestration cuts the Pentagon must endure over that timeframe.
The vast majority of the cost savings will be achieved by a reduction in the number of flyovers, static displays, port visits, service weeks and travel by military bands.
The Air Force has typically performed 1,000 flyovers a year, but under the new outreach plan it will hardly fly any over the next decade. “The Thunderbirds will perform some high-visibility flyovers, but we as a Department are not going to conduct a public flyover program at this time,” said Wendy Varhegyi, Chief of the Engagement Division for Air Force Public Affairs.
“We’re trying to be as fiscally responsible as we can be, which is what the American people want,” said Varhegyi. “Our focus will remain with air shows primarily.”
The Thunderbirds will announce their air show schedule for next year in December and Varhegyi said the expectation is that they will resume a full schedule of 34 shows. The Blue Angels will also resume a full air show schedule of 36 shows.
Both teams ceased performing at air shows on April 1, but were impacted in different ways by the sequestration budget cuts.
While the Blue Angels were allowed to continue with training flights, the Thunderbirds were completely grounded for more than three months. They were allowed to only participate in local community outreach efforts near the team’s home base at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
The training flight restriction was lifted in mid-July after the Air Force shifted around funds to allow many of its grounded pilots to be able to continue with training flights through the end of the fiscal year.