The Air Force Thunderbirds will not perform additional flyovers starting in April if severe budget cuts take effect. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports)
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We've oohed and aahed at the vroom of military jets flying over sporting events. That will be silenced if the federal budget cuts of sequestration are fully implemented.
A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber flew over the Rose Bowl last month and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July. Flyovers are part of the pre-race ritual at many NASCAR races. Precision squadrons such as the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels have been fixtures at air shows. They fly in their six-jet delta formation over sporting events, too.
But with $85 billion in federal budget cuts set to take effect Friday if no solution is found in Congress (the cuts would total $1.2 trillion over 10 years), such flyovers will be grounded, and there could be cuts to service academy athletics departments.
A low cloud ceiling prevented the Thunderbirds from making their scheduled flyover Sunday at the Daytona 500. Next on their schedule is a flyover March 10 for a NASCAR event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"The Thunderbirds are expected to stand down effective April 1. (Las Vegas) is pretty much going to be, I think, the last flyover you'll see for a while from us," Wendy Varhegyi, chief of the engagement division for Air Force public affairs, told USA TodaySports on Wednesday.
She said the curtailment would be at least through the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30), "And then at that point, we'll reevaluate. … Sequestration is a 10-year problem, so we just don't know."
According to Varhegyi, the Air Force conducts about 1,000 flyovers a year at sports venues and other events. They are made in conjunction with pre-allotted training hours for pilots.
"It's no additional cost to the government for support of any public events," she said. "Typically, if you see a unit fly over a football game, that is 90 seconds out of a several hour training sortie that they're flying."
Under sequestration, such training hours would be curtailed.
"We just have a reduced number of those training hours, and so everything is being dedicated to just preparing for that overseas deployment and for flying that's actually happening overseas," Varhegyi said.
The Air Force views the flyovers as a way to engage the public.
"Even for just 90 seconds, it is awareness," Varhegyi said. "It's just a great way that we can have connection with the American people and have that awareness to large groups of people, not to mention how patriotic everybody is."
The Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., typically has flyovers at home football games. The Blue Angels were scheduled to perform in May during Navy's graduation week. But the Navy says such displays will be halted under the sequestration cuts.
"Now if it's resolved, I would hope that we would be back to the flyovers," said Chet Gladchuk, Navy's athletics director. "But right now, I don't think anything is guaranteed, unfortunately."
Gladchuk is concerned with more than flyovers.
"The Navy obviously is making some very significant cutbacks on a lot of different fronts," he said. "You read about the furloughs and the budgetary cutbacks. … There are just so many uncertainties, and no one knows."
Gladchuk says his academy's 33 varsity sports are protected because they are operated under the Naval Academy Athletic Association. He said more than 95 percent of its budget is made up of ticket sales, TV rights fees, corporate sponsorships and donations. "We only have a very small percentage of our operating budget that comes from government," he said.
But some of that government money goes to coaches who also serve as physical education instructors, which could make them subject to furloughs. "If that happens, they'll have to take a day off, and we'll have assistant coaches that will fill in," Gladchuk said. "We'll kind of time it so the coaches will be back for the contests."
Gladchuk also said that even though Navy sports has its own funding, it will be a "bit more parochial" in sports scheduling. "I don't think you'll be finding the teams traveling all over the country like we have in the past, some of the Olympic sport teams," he said.
A spokesman for the Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., said athletics director Boo Corrigan was not available to comment on potential effects of sequestration. But the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs said it is also bracing for furloughs for its 53 coaches and several athletics administrators.
"We're kind of waiting until we know exactly what's (the impact)," said Troy Garnhart, associate athletics director for communications. "Is it going to really be 22 days, a day a week, the rest of the fiscal year, etc.?"
Garnhart said the Air Force Academy Athletic Association, similar to the entity at Navy, accounts for about half of Air Force's $38 million annual budget for athletics.
He said the cutbacks from sequestration also could affect how Air Force teams travel.
"We, a lot of times, travel on Military Airlift (military aircraft). Some of our smaller teams travel on Military Airlift, and certainly we think that's going to be affected, which means then an expense of going commercial airline," Garnhart said.
Air Force's jet flyovers at home football games also would be gone under the full effects of sequestration. But Air Force still has its live falcon mascot to perform demonstration flights at football games.
"We still do that, and I think we would probably still do that," Garnhart said. "I don't know that he'll travel to some games because we take him to away games. But, yeah, he's still here."