By Stephen Losey, Air Force Times
The Thunderbirds are returning in fiscal 2014, but the Air Force's overall budget for their shows and other community outreach programs will be less than half of what it was before sequestration hit.
The Air Force said that it expects the Thunderbirds will perform 34 shows at military and civilian open houses and airshows this year, and conduct a few flyovers for high-visibility sporting events.
The Thunderbirds usually perform between 34 and 40 shows each year, Air Force engagement division chief Wendy Varhegyi said in an Oct. 23 interview. But in fiscal 2013, they performed at only one air show and conducted only two flyovers before standing down April 1 because of sequestration.
Varhegyi said the Thunderbirds' return is crucial and losing them for long periods would have had "intangible costs" and harmed recruitment efforts for years to come.
"There are so many stories of kids seeing the Thunderbirds, who grew up to join the Air Force," Varhegyi said. "That's where the true cost will come - later down the road, where we aren't as known in society and lose those new recruits that come from seeing the Thunderbirds fly."
The Air Force will steeply cut back its outreach efforts in many other areas. It will be able to spend up to $47 million this year on all outreach programs, which would be a nearly 54 percent reduction from the roughly $101 million it had to spend before the sequester kicked in last year. Most of the Air Force's outreach budget - $34 million - goes to pay for Thunderbirds shows.
Other outreach programs include civic leader outreach, base open houses, the Air Force Academy's Wings of Blue parachute demonstration team, and band travel.
All non-Thunderbirds flyovers will not be resumed, Varhegyi said. That means no flyovers at nearly 1,000 events nationwide that usually have an Air Force presence.
"We're not doing the public flyover program," Varhegyi said. "That's where we're seeing the bulk of our savings."
The Air Force also does not plan to put aircraft on display at civilian air shows, although it is seeking Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's approval to authorize some single-ship demonstrations at civilian air shows and military open houses.
The Air Force's bands - such as the jazz ensemble Airmen of Note, the Air Force Strings, and the Singing Sergeants chorus - will play half as many on-the-road gigs this year as they usually do, Varhegyi said. The bands will play more shows near their Washington, D.C., area home as a result, and won't see a significant reduction in their total number of gigs. Air Force bands and ceremonial units will spend nearly $3.9 million on travel this year, or about half of what they spent in fiscal 2012, she said.
Varhegyi said that the Air Force in 2011 began cutting its total force band personnel by 27 percent and inactivated three active-duty and six Air National Guard band units, or 36 percent of the service's band units. Those cuts weren't finished until the end of fiscal 2013. Further cuts to bands or musicians are not expected, she said, and the Air Force has not ordered local wings or major commands to cut the supply budgets bands use to buy new instruments.
Varhegyi said the Wings of Blue team is authorized to resume its 2014 season, and besides the Thunderbirds, will be the Air Force's only aerial demonstration asset planned to operate this year. Wings of Blue may participate in up to 33 events, including academy football games.
"We fully expect them to be jumping into large [or] major events across the country," Varhegyi said.
The bulk of the cost of Wings of Blue jumps, such as travel and meals, are paid by the requesting organizations, Varhegyi said. That means the Air Force expects to spend roughly $25,000 on the team's performances this year.
Varhegyi said major commands are allowed and encouraged to hold open house events if they can afford to, but the Air Force has imposed open house spending caps based on the number of bases in each command.
The Air Force will allow commands to spend a limited amount of money on civic leader outreach and orientation flights, Varhegyi said. This is the first time the Air Force has ever put limits on how much commands and bases can spend on civic leader outreach, she said.
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth said that engaging with the public through flyovers, bands, and other outreach programs is crucial and "we can't put a price on it."
"It's important to stay connected with America," Varhegyi said. "We've sorely missed that in the past year."