Tops in Blue, the U.S. Air Force’s premier entertainment arm, is known for high-energy stage shows and the work ethic of its 35 performers — active duty airmen who for a hectic year perform as singers, dancers, musicians and comedians, cranking out performances while putting in 20-hour days in every corner of the globe.
But there is another side to Tops In Blue, a side that speaks to the human toll that occurs when inexperienced young performers must work as their own roadies, handling tons of dangerous stage equipment on only a few hours of sleep.
Gavin Light, who served as Tops in Blues’ logistics officer from 2011-12, remembers a trip to Altus Air Force Base, Okla., in the summer of 2011, when the sweltering afternoon heat sent the mercury above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“People were collapsing like flies,” said Light, who left the Air Force with the rank of captain in 2014. “Six people went to the emergency room by ambulance. Again, it’s one of those things where if they had been rested the day before, we could’ve gone to Altus and we could’ve set up in the morning.”
Tops In Blue is scheduled to play Scott Air Force Base on Jan. 15, after which the troupe is set to go on hiatus while the Air Force ponders its future. The Scott 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.
Meanwhile, Light has added his voice to a chorus of complaints about Tops In Blue that include allegations of unsafe work environments, poor professionalism and fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel.
What Light, who resides in Colorado, saw during his year with the troupe has convinced him that Tops In Blue should be disbanded immediately because, in his view, it’s a waste of taxpayer funds and because its hectic travel and performance schedules pose a danger to its performers.
Instead of pumping up troop morale, Tops In Blue is doing the opposite, as Air Force austerity measures have led the flying service to cut costs across the board, including the recent announcement it will stop providing gun salutes at veterans’ funerals as a way to save money.
The official budget for Tops In Blue is $1.3 million. Operational costs and airmen salaries add another $2 million to the total, according to Light.
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, Light said.
“A big part of it is the airlift,” Light said, using as an example an Air Force flight from Seattle to Germany to put on a Tops In Blue show. “How much would that cost? Hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’re the exclusive mission of a lot of these flights. It’s not like they’re flying space available. The plane is dedicated to Tops In Blue. And they fly all around the world. And that’s millions of dollars of cost.”
Also not included in the program’s annual budget are trips to the hospital when performers suffer on-the-job injuries, Light said.
“I personally took the vast majority of the team to the emergency room at some point during the tour year,” he said. “Again, that was one of the frustrating things about the tour. Who’s paying for all the medical care? That’s not in the Tops In Blue budget.”
Tom Edwards, the long-time civilian chief of Air Force entertainment, did not return calls from the News-Democrat to his office at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
The Air Force announced the cancellation of Tops In Blue 2016 season last week after an extensive review of the program, airmen surveys and years of criticism that it is an expensive waste of resources, is no longer relevant to today’s active duty personnel, and is too labor-intensive.
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 performances, 96 percent of commanders felt that it provides an excellent value to airmen and the Air Force. 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. Feedback from that survey will help James “assess the program with an eye toward further efficiencies,” Capt. Brooke Brzozowske said at the time.
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.
“The feedback indicated this was not a cut-and-dry decision,” said Brig. Gen. Lenny Richoux, the head of Air Force Services. Considering “changing demand for entertainment combined with constrained resources, it is important that we take a look at alternatives and ask for a broad base of inputs and opinions.”
It remains unclear if the Air Force, while assessing Tops In Blue’s future, will take a look at written complaints and Defense Department Office of Inspector General investigations filed about Tops In Blue’s workplace dangers.
A 2012 letter of complaint to a member of Congress from a former troupe member alleged that the “grueling schedule also creates unnecessary expenses. Of the four members of our team brought on to drive, all had incidents with vehicles. In fact, three of the four had several incidents. Luckily no one was injured. Still, the repair bills totaled tens of thousands of dollars throughout the year.”
The Air Force Times, which in 2014 ran a series of critical stories about Tops In Blues, published a story in May 2014 about the program’s level of support among former members of the troupe. Interviews with 2011 alumni included one cast member who recalled seeing “hundreds or sometimes thousands of airmen and families” turning out for performances.
Tops In Blues members interviewed said the many benefits of the program can’t be quantified, according to the Air Force Times article.
“You can’t measure the smiles and thank yous you get,” Sr. Airman Max Hulett, the drummer and bandleader of the 2011 tour, told the newspaper.
“Tops in Blue is serving those who even passed away in combat,” said Tech Sgt. Doug Boren, a vocalist on the 2011 tour. “We’re reaching out and touching every branch of the service, making a difference.”