Art Nalls—air show performer and the owner/operator of what maybe the only working civilian Harrier jump jet in the country—may be one of the few people benefitting from recent military budget cuts.
Those spending reductions have bumped the Pentagon’s professional aeronautics teams—the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds—off the air show circuit for the rest of the year, creating a demand for Nalls’ stubby-winged Sea Harrier to visit air shows: $35,000 for a 15-to-20 minute show.
“We’re turning away business,” the retired Marine aviator based in Washington, D.C. told USNI News on Monday.
“We shoot for six air shows. We got ten.”
Since the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels were formed, they have only suspended flying during the Korean War and for a brief period following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
The cancellation of Blue Angels’ schedule and keeping the team on minimum flight hours will save the Navy estimated $15–$20 million, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Stephens with U.S. Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet told USNI News.
That $15–$20 million the Navy saves, however, could translate into hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for the air-show industry by removing the events’ most popular draw.
“It’s doing pretty serious damage to the business,” Leesburg, Va., International Council of Air Shows President John Cudahy said Monday.
Up to a third of ICAS’s 300 member air shows will cancel events because of a lack of military participation; the air show industry could lose up to 10,000 jobs; and an estimated $1.5 billion in economic impact to areas hosting air shows likely will be cut in half, Cudahy said.
Now Nalls and a handful of other elite civilian jet pilots have seen their stock increase as they fill the void left by unprecedented suspension of the military demonstration teams
“Interest in our team has increased significantly for sure,” Jerry Kerby, lead pilot for the Lakeland, Fla., Black Diamond Jet Team said in an email Monday to USNI News. “Since the Blue Angels and Thunderbird cancellations came so late, and after the air-show season had begun, many shows had to make a call immediately on whether to reach out to civilian jet team performers.”
Kerby and the Black Diamonds fly the Aero L-39 Albatros, a 1970s-era Czech jet trainer that remained in production until the late 1990s. Albatroses have surged in popularity in the United States and have been used for years on the air-show circuit.
Teams such as Kerby’s fly formations similar to those used in the traditional Air Force and Navy demonstrations and can headline an air show if the military teams are unavailable.
“If a show doesn’t get them, we fill that niche,” said Dean Wright, lead pilot of The Patriots Jet Team out of California, which also fly L-39s. “We are a great alternative.”
For $25,000, The Patriots put on a 25-minute show that’s similar to the Blue Angels demonstration. Wright, a former Thunderbird pilot, flies in a six-man team with a former Blue Angels flier and a former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snow Bird demonstration team.
The Patriots have stepped up to fill the shoes of the Blue Angles at Portland’s Oregon International Air Show in July and will be the headlining fliers at San Francisco’s Fleet Week—which will not see any Navy ships and far fewer sailors than normal.
Other shows with military cancellations—in Chicago and Ft. Worth, Texas—were deemed too far for the Bay Area team to travel to perform.
“To get six jets across the country, it becomes financially unrealistic,” Wright said.
Though Nalls’ Harrier, The Patriots, and the Black Diamonds have seen increased interest, some private air-show fliers haven’t experienced any windfall from sequestration.
Dan McCue, based in St. Augustine, Fla., flies an F-4U Corsair in heritage formations with contemporary military aircraft. This year he lost his active duty wingmen to the budget cuts.
“On my side, we’re not benefitting at all,” McCue told USNI News. “We lost 70 percent of our shows.”
The suspension of the military teams comes as air shows have been doing well over the last several years. “Attendance has been trending up,” ICAS’s Cudahy said. “A poor economy is good for air shows.”
The Navy plans to resume Blue Angels air shows next year and this year submitted a budget to Congress includes funding for the jet demonstration teams. However, the final topline for military spending is far from certain, giving pause to fliers like McCue.
“One hopes that by 2014 the nut factory in Washington might their get act together,” McCue said.