First the Thunderbirds season was canned for the rest of the year.
Now the Nellis air show won’t go on.
Citing budget cuts under the federal sequester law, Nellis Air Force Base officials said Tuesday that they are canceling the Aviation Nation air show, the largest free public event in Nevada, that was scheduled for November.
Airmen and aviation enthusiasts alike aren’t happy about the news.
“Aviation Nation is a very popular event for our community, and I deeply regret our inability to host a Nellis Open House this year,” 99th Air Base Wing Commander Col. Barry Cornish said in a statement released by the base.
“However, due to the effect of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and associated sequestration, the defense budget cuts for fiscal year 2013 are approximately $46 billion by law and must be accomplished by October 2013,” Cornish said.
“To meet this obligation, the U.S. Air Force has prioritized combat readiness over other activities and air shows have been canceled as a result,” he said.
Thunderbird pilots who perform daring, neck-craning loops and breathtaking rolls and the entire 130-member team are naturally disappointed, said Maj. Darrick Lee, the Thunderbirds public information officer.
“We’re disappointed about it, but given the current situation, we understand why it happened,” Lee said Tuesday about the Aviation Nation cancellation. “Sequestration is limiting our ability to communicate our message, and Aviation Nation was a huge part of that.”
The Thunderbirds have just returned to Nellis after a weekend performance in Titusville, Fla., that drew nearly 40,000 spectators. He said the team will continue to practice, but after April 1, flying will be limited to keeping pilots’ certifications current and possibly some training.
Ben Newell, a Nellis spokesman, said because of budget cuts, cancellation of Aviation Nation 2013 “is final and permanent. There is no chance of reversal.”
Newell said though there hasn’t been an Aviation Nation or open house event every single year, this year’s cancellation and the specter of an uncertain future breaks a tradition with a rich history dating to May 17, 1952. About 4,000 visitors came to the base that day to see equipment and aircraft. At the following year’s public event, a squadron of 120 aircraft performed a flyover at the base.
The Air Force typically spends about $300,000 to hold the Nellis open house and host the Aviation Nation air show, which was scheduled for Nov. 9-10.
Drawing a crowd of 135,000 last year, including 21,060 from out of town, the air show contributed more than $19 million to the local economy, Aviation Nation air show Director Dave Edwards has said.
A private Las Vegas-based organization, the American Airpower Foundation, offered to help sponsor this year’s air show but couldn’t come up with enough funding.
Foundation President David M. Radcliffe said, “It’s a shame Aviation Nation has been canceled, but it’s indicative of these tremendous cuts in training and flying hours the Air Force is making.”
Radcliffe estimates the real cost of putting on Aviation Nation is “in the ball park of $800,000, counting operations, maintenance and fuel.”
“The unfortunate thing is sequestration is going to decimate the Air Force,” he said.
The red, white and blue Thunderbirds F-16 Fighting Falcons are the main attraction at Aviation Nation. The team is marking its 60th anniversary this year after having performed in 4,400 air shows in 50 states and 60 countries. The team formed at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in 1953 and moved to Nellis in 1956.
This is the first year the Thunderbirds season has been halted because of budget cuts.
In his statement, Cornish said the Las Vegas community “has provided phenomenal support to Nellis Air Force Base and its airmen.”
Because of belt-tightening, Air Force leaders directed active-duty, Reserve and National Guard units to cease all aviation support to the public March 13. This put a halt to air shows, trade shows, flyovers, orientation flights, heritage aircraft flights, F-22 Raptor demonstration flights and open houses .
Mandatory spending cuts that took effect March 1 because the Obama administration and Congress couldn’t agree on how to reduce the $16.6 trillion deficit have taken a heavy toll on Nellis Air Force Base.
In addition to canceling Aviation Nation and the Thunderbirds schedule, the Red Flag air combat training exercise, which ended this month, might be the last for the foreseeable future.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.