The Vectren Dayton Air Show has pushed ahead without the crowd-drawing act of the Air Force Thunderbirds and — for the first time ever — no official military support, but the potential attendance and economic impact of the loss isn’t known yet.
The air show has a $3.2 million economic impact, filling hotel, restaurant and rental car coffers at the two-day event at Dayton International Airport that attracts 70,000 or more people set to take flight Saturday and Sunday, according to Air Show General Manager Brenda Kerfoot.
Without a jet team in the lineup, the show could see 30 percent fewer attendees than in a year when the Thunderbirds or the Navy’s Blue Angels perform, according to Kerfoot. Dozens of air shows across the nation have shut down this year without military planes to take to the skies. The Pentagon cut jet team show performances because of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Organizers cut the air show budget to about $1 million, compared to $1.5 million in other years, because of concerns of fewer spectators, Kerfoot said.
“I think that is a loss for the show industry, but I do think what the shows did like us that decided we’re moving forward is that we are going to put together a very diversified world class, highly entertaining show for the family and we have things coming out that we normally wouldn’t get,” Kerfoot said.
The air show has filled the gap with civilian aerial performers. Team Fastrax, for example, will replace the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team and pilots who fly classic military jets, such as a Korean War era F-86 Sabre and a first-time Dayton appearance of a MiG-17, will take the place of modern fighters that typically fly solo performances.
The show has faced another hurdle: Normally, 300 airmen from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base help set up the grounds during the week, but with sequestration that aid is now gone, Kerfoot said.
The Defense Department has barred military aircraft on air show grounds, marking the first time the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson will not have a giant cargo jet on display in the four-decade history of the show, said wing commander Col. Stephen Goeman. Twenty-five of his Air Force Reserve airmen have volunteered for the show on their own time, however, and other airmen have as well.
“None of them will be in an official capacity,” he said. Kerfoot said fixed base operators at the airport have pitched in this time, too. Active-duty service members will gain free entry into the air show this year for the second time in a decade, she said.
The amount of corporate sponsorships have stayed where they were last year, and attendees from Taiwan to Europe and across the country, many aviation “photo fanatics,” have reserved spots this weekend, she said.
“Our show has a special place in the air show industry,” she said. “It is one of the crown jewels of the air show industry. That was why the board really made the decision to move forward this year. Dayton is the birthplace of aviation and we felt there were much more benefits to holding the show than to not bring or holding a show like many of the other shows across the country.”
Nationwide, 61 air shows out of about 300 canceled this season, according to John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows.
That will add up to a total economic loss in those communities approaching $400 million, he said.
“The number of cancellations and the types of shows that have canceled this year is unprecedented and it is a direct result of sequestration and the military’s decision not to support air shows this year,” he said.
The Air Force’s Air Combat Command will save a projected $11 million and reallocate that money to combat training with the grounding of the Thunderbirds, an F-22 demonstration team and heritage flights pairing A-10s and F-16s with classic warbirds, according to Sachel S. Seabrook, an ACC spokeswoman at Langley Air Force Base, Va. The command has grounded one-third of combat squadrons. “Given the significant fiscal constraints we face, it’s critical we appropriately allocate our resources provided by the American public,” she said in an email.
The Blue Angels are scheduled to perform at the Dayton Air Show next year, but whether the jet team will isn’t known because of budget uncertainty, officials said. The team performed last year above Dayton, but a withering July heat wave shrunk attendance to 47,000 people.
Cudahy said he’s confident the Defense Department is “beginning to understand what the economic impact is and the small amount of benefit they get from cutting a little bit of expenses” which had “a disproportionate impact” on communities with air shows. Next year, he said, “we’re optimistic that the cut will be completely eliminated or that it will be a fraction of what it was this year.”