PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. (AP) — The Air Force plans to ground about a third of its active-duty force of combat planes, and the Navy canceled the rest of the popular Blue Angels' aerobatic team's season because of automatic federal budget cuts.
The Air Force didn't immediately release a list of the specific units and bases that would be affected, but it said the grounding would cover fighters, bombers and airborne warning and control aircraft in the U.S., Europe and Pacific.
A top Air Force leader said the branch would focus its budget and resources on units supporting major missions, such as the war in Afghanistan, while other units stand down on a rotating basis.
“The current situation means we're accepting the risk that combat airpower may not be ready to respond immediately to new contingencies as they occur,” said Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis.
For now, the Air Force directive is not affecting Offutt Air Force Base. Delanie Stafford, a base spokesman, said Tuesday that no Offutt units “are standing down as part of this directive.''
Offutt's 55th Wing does not have many assigned aircraft — slightly more than 30 on the base. But the fleet includes large electronic intelligence-gathering planes that tend to be among the busiest in the Air Force.
As news trickled out that the Navy had canceled the remainder of the Blue Angels' season, business owners and residents of the coastal enclave where the team is based expressed resignation and disappointment.
“I just think it's sad that there are political games being played. I doubt the Blue Angels are even half of 1 percent of the entire Navy budget,” said Lloyd Proctor, co-owner of Blue Angel Hot Tubs in Pensacola. Proctor and his wife named their business after the team 10 years ago.
“They have national name recognition, and they are loved by people everywhere,” Proctor said Tuesday.
Most held out hope that the grounding would be temporary and that the season could somehow be salvaged.
Thousands of fans flock to Pensacola Beach each July to watch the team fly over the white sand and turquoise surf. It is always the biggest tourism revenue weekend of the year, said W.A. Buck Lee, president of the Santa Rosa Island Authority.
Lee said he had hoped that the six fighter jets would be allowed to continue practicing as a team and that the Pensacola Beach show could be replaced by a routine practice over the beach.
Instead, the Navy announced Tuesday that the six elite pilots would maintain only minimum flight hours to remain qualified in their F/A-18 Hornets and that squadron practices would end for the remainder of the season.
“The economic impact of the show for us is more than $2 million,” Lee said. “People are going to start canceling their hotel rooms and will hurt businesses here.”
The Air Force said that, on average, crews “lose currency” to fly combat commissions within 90 to 120 days of not flying and that it generally takes 60 to 90 days to conduct the training needed to return crews to mission-ready status.
Returning grounded units to mission-ready status will require additional funds beyond the Air Combat Command's normal budget, according to Air Force officials.
For affected units, the Air Force said, it would shift the focus to ground training.
That includes the use of flight simulators and academic training to maintain basic skills and aircraft knowledge, officials said.
Aircraft maintenance workers plan to clear up as much of the backlog in work and scheduled inspections that budgets allow.
World-Herald staff writer Henry Cordes contributed to this report.
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