No fly zone? Scott's popular air show is casualty of Air Force cuts

News-DemocratApril 12, 2014 

— The era of regularly scheduled air shows -- once an annual staple of metro-east summer and fall calendars -- could be over for good at Scott, the result of deep cuts in Air Force "outreach" budgets and stricter criteria for hosting air shows.

Scott Air Force Base last hosted an air show in September 2012. During the preceding years, the annual "Airpower Over the Midwest Air Show" drew enthusiastic crowds exceeding 100,000 people to the air base outside Mascoutah.

But, because of budget cuts, no air shows are scheduled for the years ahead as a result of new, stricter Air Mobility Command criteria to determine which bases may host them.

Col. Kyle Kremer, Scott's base commander, is seeking to host an air show 2017 as part of the celebration of Scott's founding 100 years ago in June 1917, according to Karen Pettit, a spokeswoman for the 375th Air Mobility Wing, which oversees the air base.

"And that's what we're really going to focus on is looking to have an air show for our anniversary," Pettit said. "That way we can justify the expenditures, and maybe get more support from the Air Force in bringing their aircraft out here."

Last year the Air Force ordered a halt to air shows and other major public outreach programs as a result of the automatic budget cuts stemming from sequestration, a by-product of gridlock in Congress over how to rein-in government spending.

The signing of a bi-partisan budget deal in December led the Air Force to lift its moratorium on air shows and open houses, but at the cost of imposing tighter criteria for being allowed to host these outreach events.

The Air Mobility Command, based at Scott, authorized air shows for 2014 at Travis Air Force Base, Calif; Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.; MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.; and McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.

A highlight of each show will be visits from the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision flying team.

Criteria for selecting those four bases included time elapsed since they last hosted their last air shows and geographical distribution, according to Mark Voorhis, an AMC headquarters spokesman.

The cuts in outreach spending led the Defense Department to approach AMC, in essence, saying, "'We can go about doing this, but it has to be on a limited basis, it has to be fiscally responsible, we have to look at strategic locations where air shows are proposed to make sure we have decent coverage," Voorhis said.

In other words, he said, "not having two bases that are close having an air show, and other bases that are out in the middle of nowhere.'"

The Pentagon's budget for community outreach sustained a 43 percent reduction for 2014. The aim is to save $1 billion over the next decade, the Military Times reported last month.

Defense Department budget cuts mean the military won't take part in nearly 1,000 community events nationwide as part of plans to save $129 million in the current fiscal year, the Military Times has reported.

What's more, at least 62 air shows nationwide have been canceled because of cuts to the military budget for civic outreach. Although some shows continued without military support, attendance fell by three-fourths, the Military Times reported.

Budget constraints also must be balanced with the need to continue civic outreach, according to Voorhis.

"We can't stop reaching out to the communities," he said. "The communities provide so much incredible support to the bases. And we want to continue that relationship."

Maintaining this relationship hinges on the Air Force's ability to show the communities what those bases are all about, Voorhis said.

"And let them see what the airmen who live in their communities are actually doing at these bases," he said.

Air Force spending cuts for community outreach are part of a multi-pronged, and controversial, campaign to slash spending across a host of programs and fronts.

These plans figure to hit AMC bases hard, with the command's proposed 2015 budget calling for retirement of its C-38 Courier passenger jet and reductions in fleets of the C-20 passenger jet, as well as the KC-135 air tanker and C-130H cargo plane.

Air Force plans over the next five years call for the retirement of almost 500 airplanes from its inventory, including, most controversially, the mothballing of the entire fleet of 343 A-10 Thunderbolt II "tank buster" aircraft, despite strong Congressional opposition.

Pentagon cuts to air shows and open houses at military installations have caused hard feelings around the nation.

Joint Base Andrews, located outside Washington, D.C., once hosted one of the Air Force's most popular air shows. But in November, the Air Force canceled the 2014 Andrews Air Show, resulting in a savings of $2.1 million.

The mandatory cuts have also hit Navy and Marine Corps events hard, resulting in the cancellation last fall of Marine and Navy "Fleet Week" events at many port cities, as well as curtailed military band appearances and special event flyovers.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 239-2533.

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