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Congressman: Did politics ground Miramar Air Show?

Jul. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
2011 Miramar Air Show
Two MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft bring troops to the flight line at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., during the Marine air-ground task force demonstration at the Miramar Air Show in October 2011. (GySgt. Steven Williams / Marine Corps)
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A California congressman wants to know why the Defense Department refused to support a Marine Corps air show that reportedly brings in money every year.

In a Monday letter, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for his reasoning behind the decision to ground military flights for the Miramar Air Show scheduled for Oct. 4-6, an event that draws an estimated annual crowd of 750,000.

“Given that the air show costs are reportedly covered, I ask that you provide a more detailed explanation of the Pentagon’s justification, including the restriction on military displays — even as Marine officials planned to use their own resources,” Hunter wrote. “Specifically in your reasoning, I respectfully request an accounting of any previous and anticipated costs to the Department of Defense for the Miramar Air Show, as well as any profits over the same years.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper reported that previous air shows have brought in $17 million, but Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter, said his office had not been able to independently confirm that figure or determine how much of that was net profit. Officials with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, however, confirmed to the paper that costs of the show were covered by proceeds from the event.

In a July 11 memo obtained by Marine Corps Times, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Community and Public Outreach Rene Bardorf denied a request for Defense Department funding for the Miramar Air Show, despite efforts from air station personnel to execute the event with an eye toward cost-effectiveness and use of local resources.

“I understand the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing is prepared to conduct training in conjunction with the air show, using only local units to mitigate costs,” Bardorf wrote. “However, the perception of permitting aerial demonstrations at the Miramar Air Show when similar justification was denied for the academy graduations is problematic, since neither event rises to the national or international level of significance.”

The air station did not have to cancel the event, Bardorf wrote, but it had to be executed with a laundry list of restrictions: only local assets and personnel could be used; no appropriated funds could be spent; military flyovers and aerial demonstrations were prohibited; flight training could not be conducted over the event area; the Navy’s Parachute Team, the Leap Frogs, could not perform; and no Navy or Marine aircraft on ground display could so much as start or taxi while spectators were present.

Hunter saw this decision as political showmanship designed to highlight the ill effects of sequestration budget cuts, Kasper said.

“It's easy to see how an air show in San Diego could make money,” he said. “Looking at this entire issue, if you do have an air show that makes money, is it smart to ground military air craft when all indicators suggest that it was purely a political move?”

Hunter’s letter to Hagel asked the defense secretary to provide him with assurances that the air show was not left unsupported for political reasons.

The Defense Department Comptroller’s Office issued guidance in March that grounded all military aerial demonstrations after April 1, 2013. As a result, officials at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., cancelled the air station’s annual air show, which had been scheduled for April 27-28.

With elite military air performance teams like the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds grounded, hundreds of shows and demonstrations have been affected by changes due to budget cuts. Bardorf’s memo said that the DoD had withdrawn support from more than 2,700 “community and civic events around the globe.”

However, the Marine Corps Times obtained DoD guidance issued this spring regarding budget cuts that said exemptions to the ban on aerial demonstrations could be made on a waiver basis, pending approval of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.

A spokeswoman for Miramar, 1st Lt. Melanie Salinas, said the air show had not been cancelled to date, but it was not yet clear what would be featured at the event in lieu of military flight demonstrations.

“We hope to have some sort of concrete plan in the next few weeks,” she said. “There’s the potential to have a festival, static displays or civilian aircraft. Right now, they’re just looking at everything.”

The biggest priority in planning, Salinas said, is to maintain a relationship with the local community.

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