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PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. • The U.S. Air Force plans to ground about a third of its active-duty force of combat planes — including a squadron based at Hill Air Force Base — and the U.S. Navy cancelled the rest of the popular Blue Angels’ aerobatic team’s season because of automatic federal budget cuts.
The Air Force said the stand down will cover fighters, bombers and airborne warning and control aircraft in U.S., Europe and the Pacific.
The impact in Utah
An F-16 fighter-pilot squadron at Hill Air Force Base will be grounded when it returns from the Asia-Pacific region as a result of federal budget slashing. Read more here about the impact of military cuts on Utahns.
In Utah, the 29 pilots of the 4th Squadron of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base will be among those grounded, wing spokeswoman Andrea Mason confirmed.
As of Tuesday, the pilots, who are deployed in the Asia-Pacific region, are training at reduced level called "basic mission capable." The F-16 pilots had been training at a more rigorous "combat ready" level.
The squadron deployed in October and a specific return date has not been announced, Mason said.
The wing’s other squadron, the 421st, will be training at the "basic mission capable" level through the end of the fiscal year, Mason said.
A top Air Force leader said the branch would focus its budget and resources on units supporting major missions, like 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," Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, said in a statement.
As news trickled out that the Navy had cancelled the remainder of 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 was temporary and that the season could somehow be salvaged.
Thousands of fans flocks 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 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. There were no shows planned in Utah.
"The economic impact of the show for us is more than $2 million," Lee said. "People are going to start cancelling their hotel rooms and will hurt businesses here."
A spokesman for the Navy said team members would be allowed to fly minimal hours to maintain flight proficiency in the F/A 18 fighter jets, but the six-jet squadron would discontinue group practices for the remainder of the season. There were no shows planned in Utah.
The Air Force says, on average, aircrews ‘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 aircrews to mission-ready status.
Returning grounded units to mission ready status will require additional funds beyond Air Combat Command’s normal budget, according to Air Force Officials.
"Even a six-month stand down of units will have significant long-term, multi-year impacts on our operational readiness," Air Combat Command spokesman Maj. Brandon Lingle said in an email to The Associated Press.
For affected units, the Air Force says it will shift its focus to ground training.
That includes the use of flight simulators and academic training to maintain basic skills and aircraft knowledge, Lingle said. Aircraft maintainers plan to clear up as much of a backlog of scheduled inspections and maintenance that budgets allow.
Tribune reporter Kristen Moulton contributed to this report. Vergakis reported from Norfolk, Va.
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