Questions surfaced Wednesday about defense budget cuts affecting the Thunderbirds air demonstration team at Nellis Air Force Base after news out of Florida that the Navy's Blue Angels team might face cutbacks.
Speculation about cutbacks to public shows put on by the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds and the Army's Golden Knights paratroopers swirled as the Pentagon looks for ways to trim $450 billion over the next decade.
A spokesman for the Thunderbirds, known in Air Force circles as "America's Ambassadors in Blue," responded to the story by The Associated Press at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fla. The story, citing military analyst Loren Thompson, said it is possible that spending for the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds and other military promotional programs could be curtailed under a larger umbrella bill as Congress and the administration look for ways to cut federal spending.
In an email response to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a Thunderbirds spokesman said the demonstration team, like other Air Force programs, is not immune from budget cut consideration in light of "tough challenges to meet savings goals."
The spokesman, Tech. Sgt. Jake Richmond, said Congress, the Pentagon and the Obama administration face those challenges "while continuing to preserve the core tenets of our national security strategy."
However, he said, "our job as Thunderbirds, like all Air Force airmen, is to continue performing our mission as directed. We will do that to the best of our abilities, and we are looking forward to an excellent show season in 2012."
The Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels are recruiting tools for, respectively, the Air Force and Navy.
With their 58th season concluding last week with the Aviation Nation air show at Nellis, the Thunderbirds have performed annually with a twofold mission: "first, to exhibit the capabilities of modern war-fighting aircraft and, second, to demonstrate the high degree of skill maintained by Air Force members serving in a variety of career specialties," according to the Thunderbirds website.
Thompson, a military analyst with the conservative think tank Lexington Institute in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, said it is very unlikely anyone in Congress would target the Blue Angels because the team is so popular.
"I think any legislator who called for eliminating the Blue Angels would be digging and digging through emails filled with outrage," he said.
Nevertheless, he said, the popular promotional programs that account for tens of millions of dollars, a small fraction of the Pentagon's $926 billion annual budget, could be curtailed.
"No provision specifically aimed at cutting the Blue Angels will ever pass, but that doesn't mean the Blue Angels are safe from budget cuts," Thompson said.
Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, who represents the Pensacola base and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said the popularity of the Blue Angels will keep the program alive.
"You can ask the hundreds of thousands of people who come out each weekend and see them fly and know they aren't going anywhere," he said.
Likewise, the Thunderbirds, which began flying out of Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in 1953 and moved to Nellis in 1956, can draw more than 100,000 spectators combined during weekend air shows.
This year, the Thunderbirds performed in more than 70 air shows in the United States and other countries, including Turkey, Romania, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Bulgaria, Belgium and Britain.
The Blue Angels, in their 65th year of air shows, have had a tough year.
Capt. Greg McWherter, the Blue Angels' commander in 2008 and 2010, returned in May when his replacement, Cmdr. Dave Koss, resigned after flying below minimum altitude at a Virginia air show.
Koss realized the mistake and pulled out of the maneuver, but the error, which could have caused a crash, prompted an internal investigation and a monthlong safety stand-down, which forced the Blue Angels to cancel their traditional flyover at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
The Blue Angels' most recent fatal accident was in 2007, when a pilot lost control of his F/A-18 and crashed outside a Marine base in Beaufort, S.C.
In September, a crash of a World War II-vintage P-51 Mustang at the Reno air races killed 11 spectators and the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, raising the public's awareness of what can go wrong when airplanes and spectators mix.
After that deadly crash, a Nellis spokesman assured the safety of the Aviation Nation event, which proved to be safe and flawless Nov. 12-13.
"The key distinction is that an air race is an unscripted, dynamic competition while an air show consists of choreographed, highly rehearsed aerial demonstrations. In comparison, air races are to aerial demonstrations as short-track speed skating races are to figure skating performances," the spokesman, Chuck Ramey, said in September.
In the past eight years, Thunderbird jets have been involved in two incidents at air shows in the United States, but not at Nellis. Neither involved spectators.
On Aug. 20, 2005, a pair of Thunderbirds touched in a midair maneuver and sent a missile rail from one plane into Lake Michigan during the Chicago air show.
On Sept. 14, 2003, a Thunderbirds F-16 exploded in a fireball on impact during an air show at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The pilot thought he was about 1,000 feet higher than his aircraft actually was when he began what is called a "split-S" maneuver after takeoff.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.