That sound you heard overhead this summer probably wasn’t the distant roar of a military jet in full afterburner. More likely it was the din caused by hoards of 17-year cicadas.
With the sequestration resulting from our do-nothing Congress’ failure to pass a budget, military aircraft—including the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels—have been conspicuously absent from airshows. At the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc., July 29-August 4, the usual lineup of military fighters and transports was missing from the main plaza, replaced by warbirds, civil airplanes and experimental aircraft. Thunderbird pilot Major Caroline Jensen, a Wisconsin native who was on hand to talk about the demo team, told ABC affiliate WBAY: “A lot of us are working on our education, professional development, so there’s been good things that came out of it. But I’m hoping next year we get to fly and come back and grace the skies of Wisconsin.”
Let’s hope so, but with the current battle in Washington over the budget and deficit, don’t count on it. The EAA fought its own battle prior to AirVenture when the Federal Aviation Administration decided in May to charge the association $447,000 to provide air traffic control staffing at Wittman Field, “the world’s busiest airport” during the event. In the past the FAA had picked up the tab as part of its annual $15 billion budget, but this year changed its tune when faced with the prospect of more than $600 million in sequestration cuts.
The FAA’s decision touched off a legal battle, with EAA Chairman Jack Pelton stating that the agency was “holding AirVenture and [general aviation] hostage this year. AirVenture and other GA events are pawns in the larger sequestration political standoff.” The EAA pointed out that AirVenture attendees already pay for FAA services through aviation fuel and airline ticket taxes, and claimed the ATC fee amounted to double dipping. On July 19, following a similar effort by 28 U.S. senators, a bipartisan group of 30 congressmen sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in support of the EAA, stating, “This event…is a catalyst for promoting the aviation industry as a whole on a global scale. Its more than 700 exhibitors from 48 states and around the world derive hundreds of millions of dollars in sales of aviation products and services, resulting in tens of millions in federal tax revenues.” In the end the EAA, with no other viable options, was forced to pony up, though Pelton said, “This isn’t over.”
More disturbing than the impact of sequestration on events like AirVenture has been its effect on U.S. military aviation readiness. Automatic budget cuts have forced the cancellation of training flights essential to maintaining military pilot proficiency. “Since April we’ve been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness,” noted General Mike Hostage, commander of the Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. Although a shift in funding allowed some flight training to be restored in July, Hostage said, “…what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery.”
Unless Congress can reach a deficit-reduction agreement before the new fiscal year begins on October 1, the sequester will trigger an additional $52 billion in automatic defense cuts. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) called that an “unthinkable reality.” If you agree, call or write your representatives—today—and urge them to do their job.