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Blue Angels return to Dayton skies in advance of air show

Landing on a snow-swept runway blasted by Arctic-like temperatures, a Blue Angels F/A-18 jet returned Thursday to Dayton in a comeback for the Navy jet team grounded by sequestration last year.

With a roar in a quick pass over Dayton International Airport, the twin-seat blue and yellow fighter plane was hustled into a hangar to escape the below zero temperatures as Vectren Dayton Air Show organizers hoped for large crowds for the June 28-29 show coming off a sharp decline in attendance last year. Budget cuts forced the Air Force Thunderbirds to cancel the team’s appearance last June. The June air show also had a tragic biplane crash that killed a wing walker and her pilot. The show had about 23,000 people turn out last year.

“Getting a jet team is the pinnacle of the air show industry, so it’s extremely important,” Dayton Air Show Executive Director Terry Grevious said Thursday. “It helps the air show a lot.”

Blue Angels pilot and team narrator Lt. Ryan Chamberlain, 28, of Bloomington, Ill., and events coordinator Lt. Cmdr. Michael Cheng, 40, of San Francisco, Calif., arrived to make preparations for the Dayton show, one of 34 stops on the demonstration team’s schedule this season.

Chamberlain, a former commercial pilot turned naval aviator, said the storied team was eager to get back in the air after sitting out most of 2013.

“It’s exciting, obviously, after being not able to perform for nine months to be back in the air show circuit and knowing that our military is excited to have us back,” he said. “… I think people want to connect with their military. They missed it over that course of 2013 and that’s why we are back. That’s why the Department of Defense decided they wanted us to get back out there.”

The Blue Angels were set to depart home base Thursday at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., for two months of winter training at Naval Air Facility El Centro, Calif. The pilots will fly more than 120 training missions to get ready for the show season that takes off in March, Chamberlain said.

While grounded last year, team members participated in more community outreach visits in Pensacola, and pilots flew 11 hours a month to maintain proficiency in the F/A-18, compared to 30 or 35 hours a month during the show season. Each Blue Angels aviator had his tour of duty extended one year, rather than add three new pilots, for training safety reasons, he said.

The lack of military aircraft for the air show circuit led to the cancellation of more than 60 shows across the country last season, said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. He estimated the economic impact around $400 million nationwide.

But it was the last-minute timing of the jet teams cancellations and the lack of military aircraft to fly to show sites that hurt air show planners, leaving many without enough time to find other performers to fill the void, he said.

“The Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels have become a very important part of the structure of our business,” he said. “They are by a wide margin the biggest draw and have been for the last 40 years.”

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