NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The Air Force says it is scaling back its participation in dozens of air shows this year in an effort to cut costs and ensure its combat pilots are getting the training hours they need in a time of shrinking budgets.
The cutbacks won't affect the service's premier demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, but will mean fewer fighter planes performing for scores of crowds around the country.
Officials at Air Combat Command eliminated the solo performances of five of its crews based in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah.
Eliminating solo performances by the A-10, which provides air support for ground forces, and the F-16 and F-15E, which are capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, is expected to save the Air Force $15.5 million and allow about 970 training flights that otherwise would have been canceled. The cost savings include fuel and travel costs for the pilots and their maintenance crews, among other things. It's unclear if the teams will perform again next year.
"The goal of the commander of Air Combat Command is to maintain mission ready pilots, and in order to do that we had to cut some money. And being able to save 900 some odd sorties — that's quite a few pilots that we can maintain," said Lt. Col. Mike Brazelton, branch chief of Air Combat Command's aerial events staff.
The only combat plane that will conduct solo performances this year is the F-22 Raptor, which is based at Air Combat Command's headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. Brazelton said the F-22 was chosen as the remaining demonstration plane because, as the world's only fifth generation fighter plane, it is capable of maneuvers that other planes are not and it is the plane most frequently requested for performances.
The Air Force uses its demonstration teams to showcase the precision maneuvers its planes are capable of during combat, to help with recruiting and to help build goodwill in the U.S. and abroad. The air show season typically starts in the spring and lasts through the fall. The F-22's next performance is Saturday in Louisville, Ky.
"Some people look at the demonstration and go 'Hey, why are we doing it?'" said Maj. Henry "Schadow" Schantz, the F-22 Demonstration Team pilot. "Overall, this is a way to meet real people on the road and demonstrate what our Air Force airmen are doing."
The past two years, jets assigned to Air Combat Command Aerial Events performed at 131 air shows each year. That includes a heritage program where modern fighter planes such as the A-10 and F-16 fly alongside vintage jets flown by civilians in aircraft such as the World War II-era P-51 Mustang. This year, Air Combat Command plans to only send its jets to 61 shows, which includes those performing in the heritage program. The F-22 was scheduled to fly at 20 of those shows.
In a statement, Air Combat Command officials said eliminating the solo demonstrations would result in an increase of more than 25 combat-ready fighter pilots.
"That's a very good thing for our nation and wise stewardship of our limited resources," the command said in the statement.
Although it's difficult to gauge exactly how many performances the other five teams would have participated in this year, Air Force biographies show they range from 30 performances a year by an A-10C Thunderbolt pilot to 65 performances a year by the F-15E Strike Eagle Demo Team.
Those biographies say the teams performed for between 3 million and 7 million people each year.
The Air Force says Schantz performs for more than 10 million spectators around the world each year. Schantz said he and his crew also spend countless hours interacting with crowds, which can include children who want to be pilots when they grow up and family members of veterans who are moved by his performances.
Schantz said that while he's always honored to represent the Air Force, he doesn't feel any additional pressure as the lone demonstration team pilot performing this year.
"It's always business as usual," said Schantz.
The canceled demonstration teams are the F-15E Demonstration Team at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.; the F-16 Demonstration Team East at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.; F-16 Demonstration Team West at Hill Air Force Base, Utah; A-10 Demonstration Team East at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.; and the A-10 Demonstration Team West at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz.
Online: Air Combat Command Aerial Events http://www.acc.af.mil/aerialevents/
Brock Vergakis can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.