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Private Jets Fill Air Show Void Left by Pentagon Cuts

Former US Marine Lt. Col. Art Nall with his restored Sea Harrier. Since military teams have canceled air shows dates due to budget cuts, Nall has seen increased demand for struggling air shows.

Former US Marine Lt. Col. Art Nalls with his restored Sea Harrier. Since military teams have canceled air shows dates due to budget cuts, Nalls has seen increased demand from air shows.

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.

The Patriots Jet Team fly Aero L-39 Albatros jets during a 2009 show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Teams like The Patriots are in demand following cancellations by Pentagon jet teams.

The Patriots Jet Team fly Aero L-39 Albatros jets during a 2009 show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Teams like The Patriots are in demand following cancellations by Pentagon jet teams.

“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.

  • Michael Wilson

    Who needs precision miIitary flight demonstrations? Just imagine the thrill the residents of Honolulu, Aspen, Sun Valley, Palm Beach, Bermuda, Mexico City, Chicago,Honolulu, Aspen, Africa, Spain, Honolulu, Aspen, Chicago, et. al. (lather, rinse, repeat) will get when when they see the flying limos of our esteemed Empress and Perfumed Princesses.


    This is good news. Although the Blues, T-Birds, miscellaneous demonstration teams, and static displays are all very impressive, what is the return on investment? Going to airshows and doing flyovers is usually a good deal for the crews , event organizers, and all involved, but what is it worth exactly to the military?

    With deployment lengths going up, no parts to fix things, and not enough people, I predict retention will start to slide. To make up for it, recruitment will have to go up. If we can successfully man the fleet without doing airshows and fleet weeks, why should we do them at all? These events are essentially transfers of money without military utility.

    If the airshow circuit opens up for civilian demonstrations, that’s good for them. They can get the work without having to compete with the military demonstration teams, who essentially do the shows for free (not really, but they’re super cheap).

    There’s no doubt that for military aviators, going to airshows is a great deal. I have done it plenty and enjoyed the heck out of it. The demonstration teams are very impressive, fleet weeks are awesome too, but I think it’s about time we took a serious look at everything we do that we don’t have to do and establish what our return on investment is. If it’s supposedly measured in recruiting and good will and we still make our numbers without those events, then we don’t need to do them, and we owe it to the American public to be good resource stewards.

  • Mike Bates

    The biggest threat to our long-term national security is
    our federal government’s $16 trillion debt. Over the last four years spending
    has grown by $900 billion, an increase of 31%. The sequestration’s
    so-called “cuts” reduce 2013 spending by $85 billion, a reduction of just 2.2%.
    Even with sequestration, spending will INCREASE over the next ten years by $16.3
    trillion, and the debt will grow to $23 trillion.

    This rate of spending is unsustainable. Federal spending
    must be reduced, and the military must be included in that reduction. But we
    must reduce spending wisely. Canceling Blue Angels and Thunderbirds air shows
    is not wise.

    Performances have been cancelled to serve an illegitimate
    political agenda by the Obama Administration. President Obama wants the
    miniscule budget cuts to appear drastic and unacceptable to the public. Instead
    of cutting expenses in a manner that would most efficiently provide necessary
    services, they are cutting popular and visible government programs with the goal
    of inflicting maximum discomfort, so the public will respond with support for
    higher spending, higher taxes and higher borrowing. He also get the added
    benefit of blaming the Republicans for it.

    Merchants and elected officials decry the loss of millions
    of dollars in economic activity that result from air show cancellations around
    the country. While understandable, these are not valid reasons for the military
    aircraft to fly at air shows.

    The Blue Angels (the oldest military flight demonstration
    squadron) do not exist to entertain the crowds or to provide an economic boost
    to the host cities. They are not about making money. They are about making a
    strong military. When the Blue Angels were formed in 1946 it was comprised
    entirely of World War II combat veterans, and its purpose was to demonstrate
    naval air power to the public and to garner support for continued funding of
    naval aviation that many politicians wanted to end altogether.

    value as a recruiting tool quickly became evident, and that has been the mission
    ever since. The Blue Angels serve a valuable and necessary purpose to our
    military readiness.

    When young people see the pride, precision and
    professionalism of the squadron, they want to be a part of it. And recruiters
    are always present at military air shows. Active duty military are similarly
    motivated. The Blue Angels will tell you that they do what every naval aviator
    learns to do. But the reality is that they take that training to an elite level
    that encourages the entire fleet to strive for a higher standard of

    There is no valid reason that the Blue Angels are
    grounded. We should demand that they return to the skies, not because we want
    to watch them fly or because the shows benefit us economically, but because they
    are essential to our long-term national security.

    The responsible choice is not between flying at air shows
    and cutting costs. Military participation at air shows is necessary. So are
    budget cuts. We can and should do both.

    Mike Bates
    Navarre, FL

    • Osamas Pajamas

      OhBummer must have his tantrums and lash out in ways that cause pain and dangerous shortfalls on the defense side. The principal duty of a national government is national defense — not cellphones for Da Downtrodden, socialized [government-controlled] medicine, and layer upon layer of social programs which threaten to bankrupt the nation. Let the states fiddle with this social bullshirt and if some of them go bankrupt, then that should be a lesson for everyone else that government cannot safely play Santa Claus with stolen money [taxes]. If we must have taxes at the national level, then they must pay for the #1 duty of a national government. Oh, and by the way, the ranks are grossly underpaid. WARRIORS ON FOODSTAMPS, ARE YOU PEOPLE NUTS?!