Seattle Post-Intelligencer August 3, 2011
Could the Blue Angels be grounded -- forever?
By Chris Grygiel
The Blue Angels, the Navy's elite exhibition flight squadron, have thrilled Seafair audiences for decades with their precision maneuvers and aerial acrobatics at speeds reaching 700 mph.
But could the Angels face the axe in upcoming federal budget cuts?
As part of the deal to raise the limit on America's credit card President Barack Obama signed this week, Congress pledged to find $2.1 trillion in reductions over the coming decade. The Pentagon faces at least a $350 billion haircut, with the possibility of much more if lawmakers can't agree to find efficiencies elsewhere. Defense cuts are notoriously tough, because closing bases and shuttering or scaling back huge weapons programs costs jobs, affects communities and generally makes politicians squirm.
The Blue Angels and other performance units like the Air Force's Thunderbirds demonstration flight squadron and the Army's Golden Knights parachute team are small and cheap by Pentagon standards. For this fiscal year, for example, the Blue Angels' budget is about $30 million (the total tab for the Pentagon this year is about $530 billion).
So in the search for savings, the Blue Angels seem like easy pickings, no?
Experts are divided.
The Blue Angels will be eliminated "only after they sell the Washington Monument," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military news and information website.
Units like the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are high-profile, successful recruiting tools, proponents say, with the Blue Angels performing to about 11 million people each year.
But others who study military matters think the upcoming austerity measures could end up overturning a lot of conventional wisdom about defense spending. Asked whether he thought the Blue Angels might be in jeopardy, Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon said, "yes, I do."
"They are elite units and impressive but they have in some ways roles comparable to military bands - more about morale than traditional combat. That may be something of an overstatement but it still gets an important point across. These cuts are going to hurt, and a lot of things we'd rather not cut will have to be reconsidered."
The Blue Angels' official name is the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. Formed in 1946, the unit's six pilots from the Navy and Marines now fly F/A-18 fighter jets. This year they've scheduled more than 35 shows, from California to Maine. Seafair is one of the unit's most high-profile outings, and they've been coming to the festival since 1972. They missed the 1994 and 1995 shows because of FAA concerns about safely flying over Lake Washington.
And while they have a huge fan base here, there are often grumbles about the noise and potential for a crash in the Seattle metro area. But when Seafair replaced the Blue Angels with the Canadian Air Force's Snowbirds flight team in 1994, the Snowbirds received such harsh ridicule they vowed never to return.
This year the Blue Angels will be practicing Thursday, from 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., with performances from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
© Copyright 2011, Hearst Communications Inc.