Tops In Blue, the Air Force’s premiere entertainment unit, is scheduled to bring its high-energy stage show to Mascoutah High School for what could be its final performance at 7 p.m., Jan. 15.
Tops In Blue consists of 40 vocalists, musicians, dancers and technicians who, after surviving a rigorous audition process, travel the globe for a hectic year performing more than 100 shows while serving as their own roadies.
Tops In Blue is set to go on hiatus immediately after its Mascoutah show while the Air Force ponders its future. The Mascoutah date could be the 57-year-old program’s last show as the Air Force determines if it’s worth the cost during a period of growing austerity within the flying service.
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The official budget for Tops In Blue is $1.3 million. Operational costs and airmen salaries add another $2 million to the total.
But the true cost of paying for Tops In Blue is more like $10 million a year if travel, food and lodging are factored in, according to former Air Force Capt. Gavin Light, who had worked as the troupe’s logistics officer during the 2011-12 performance year.
Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary, has said the program’s future has often been a topic of discussion during her tenure.
Before James took command of the flying service, the Air Force’s top military and civilian leaders had bragged about surveys showing that after Tops in Blue was highly popular among enlisted personnel and civilian audiences. A 2011 survey of major command commanders was overwhelmingly positive. Going back to the early 1960s, Air Force leaders have insisted it is an excellent tool for morale-building, community relations and recruitment.
But the voices of everyday airmen were seldom heard, until James circulated an Air Force-wide survey in October.
The survey, whose results from 4,700 respondents were announced last week, shows that while there is “widespread awareness among the force (about Tops In Blue), only about 25 percent of all Airmen have seen a performance within the past five years,” according to the Air Force announcement regarding the forced hiatus. Air personnel between the ages of 25 and 34, who make up about one-third of the active-duty Air Force were “the least likely to have a positive opinion of Tops in Blue,” according to the service.