Let The Blue Angels Soar Again

Grounding the dazzling fliers saves little money but has plenty of costs.

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 12 AUG 13) … Marc ‘Vino’ Weintraub

Sequestration as a story line has largely faded from national headlines. However, its ramifications are slowly trickling down and having real-world effects across the country. One unfortunate example is the cancellation of the 2013 air-show season flown by the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron – aka the Blue Angels.

On the surface, lobbying for the restoration of the Blue Angels for next year might seem petty, given that the Defense Department has had to cope with substantial cuts this year and the Navy and Marine Corps fliers might seem like a luxury. But a look at the numbers suggests otherwise.

At the time of the 2013 season’s cancellation in April, with only two shows flown out of 35 scheduled, the Blue Angels had already spent $20 million of their $37 million annual budget. Most of that spending goes into the extensive three-month training required prior to the show season. Sequestration called for $85 billion to be cut across all federal departments. Defense makes up 18% of that, or roughly a $15 billion cut. The Navy’s budget for 2013 is $156 billion and it was likely asked to find $3 billion-$4 billion in cuts. The question remains: What would have been the return on spending the $17 million, or 0.01% of the Navy budget, to fund the rest of the Blue Angels 2013 season?

Defense spending can be difficult to quantify in return on investment. How do you measure the amount of security reaped from a $7 billion nuclear aircraft carrier or a $150 million fighter jet? But with the nation’s flight demonstration squadrons (Air Force Thunderbirds included) and the mission they are tasked with, quantifiable metrics exist.

The Blue Angels perform before approximately 11 million people during a season. Thirty-five cities across the nation each realize an average of $6 million of economic impact, according to the International Council of Air Shows, or $200 million for the U.S. economy as a whole. In large cities, such as San Francisco and Chicago, the economic impact is north of $15 million.

While these and other large cities will still hold their air shows without the Navy and Air Force demonstration squadrons – the Thunderbirds’ season was canceled too – the economic benefits will be reduced. But for cities such as Rockford, Ill., Indianapolis, Ind., and St. Cloud, Minn., the absence of the shows’ main attraction forced them to cancel their air shows altogether. Any money spent in preparation for these events was lost.

Of course, military recruiting is one of the primary reasons these teams exist. And while all services have extensive recruiting budgets, it seems likely that the bang for the buck from an air show weekend attended by 500,000 people in San Diego far exceeds that of random advertising buys throughout the year. Television and press coverage reaches millions more. None of this will happen this year – and some of our best ambassadors in keeping that civilian-military bond strong remain grounded.

Folks in San Diego or other coastal cities with large U.S. bases nearby don’t need air shows to be exposed to the military. The recruiting loss will be felt most acutely in Rockford and St. Cloud and other smaller inland cities, where young people’s only exposure to the Navy and Marine Corps are the Blue Angels and the inspiration they provide.

The defense budget is always a contentious subject, and at a time of global economic fragility every proposed dollar spent should be carefully scrutinized. But consider: 38 nations across the globe did not cancel their military squadron performances this year. These countries include Morocco, Poland, Thailand, Chile and Turkey. The only two teams that had their seasons canceled were the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. Do we really want to send the message that Morocco or Chile or these other countries are in better shape financially than the United States?

The 2013 season is lost. The Blue Angels team’s skills have atrophied to a point that even if the money were turned on again, there would not be enough time to train to execute shows at a level of proficiency and safety commensurate with U.S. military flight-demonstration squadrons.

But a decision for 2014 has not been made. Congress should get involved: A 35-show season affects the lives of constituents, and if the next season is lost, it may take years to reconstitute the program and train to an appropriate level. More important, if a child from Chile has the opportunity to view that country’s best, then American boys and girls certainly deserve to be awed and inspired once again by the world’s best. The Blue Angels shouldn’t be grounded again next year.

Maj. Weintraub retired in 2011 after serving 20 years as a U.S. Marine Corps Harrier pilot.

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