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Air Force Thunderbirds resume practice for 2014 air shows

Sixteen Air Force combat squadrons grounded by budget cuts, including the famed Thunderbirds, will take to the skies weeks after top Air Force leaders declared the reductions had created a “readiness crisis,” the military announced Monday.

The order means one-third of the Air Force’s fighter, bomber and airborne warning and control squadrons around the world will resume flying, although none are based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, home to the Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing.

The Thunderbirds F-16 fighter jet demonstration team will take to the air to train in preparation for the 2014 show season, the military said Monday. The team will not resume air show performances this season.

The Air Force will spend $208 million taken out of $1.8 billion Congress allowed the Pentagon to use for higher priority missions to resume flying, according to Sachel S. Seabrook, an Air Combat Command spokeswoman at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.

In May, former Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley warned the service confronted a “readiness crisis” because of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration forced a near 20 percent reduction in flying hours, reductions in pilot training time and maintenance cutbacks.

The Thunderbirds scrubbed an appearance at the Vectren Dayton Air Show last month because of budget reductions and had been grounded since April 1.

“While they are resuming training flights, we recognize this is the beginning of the process to return to crucial training and development for Thunderbirds pilots and maintainers,” Seabrook said in an email. The team “may be able to resume a limited number of aerial demonstrations next calendar year. As of right now, there is no guarantee of a 2014 season.”

Vectren Dayton Air Show General Manager Brenda Kerfoot said the OK to let the pilots train was an encouraging sign for next season. The Navy’s Blue Angels, which continued a minimum number of hours to train but also shelved the show season this year, remain on the calendar to perform in Dayton next year.

The air show, which witnessed the death of a wing walker and her pilot in a June 22 crash before spectators, had 23,000 people attend over two days. Typically, 70,000 people attend when a major jet team performs. Kerfoot said the lack of military participation put the show in a tail spin on attendance.

“I think that was the chief reason that our numbers were as low as they were,” she said Monday. “We had a phenomenal civilian line-up … but it just shows that you need that other element to draw spectators.”

Nationwide, attendance has “plummeted” 40 to 80 percent at air shows this season without military aircraft on display, said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows in Leesburg, Va.

Eleven to 13 million spectators attend air shows each year and 60 shows were canceled in 2013. The industry is “very eager” to know the wait will be over next season, Cudahy said.

“Although many shows all over the country have made valiant attempts to run shows without military participation, attendance figures so far this year suggest the military is a vital component of air shows in this country,” he said in a telephone interview.

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