As the son of a Navy captain and the brother of a naval aviator, I’ve long been a fan of all things Navy, especially the Blue Angels. As an 8-year-old, I was so intent on obtaining the autograph of a Blues pilot that I ended up lost in the crowd at NAS Meridian.
But this month’s tragic death of Blue Angel pilot Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, and the same-day, nonfatal crash of an Air Force Thunderbirds jet, makes me wonder if it isn’t time to put the brakes on this noble but costly practice. Yes, I know it’s blasphemy to speak this way in the cradle of naval aviation. But there is a downside to the world’s most-respected flying teams:
• Since the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds began, some 66 pilots and crew have been killed in air shows, training or transport accidents. It’s a sad irony that the best military pilots in the world lost their lives to, in large part, provide us with entertainment.
• The demonstration teams cost taxpayers millions. Most local air shows are asked to pay $6,000 for each day of a show. But with seven aircraft and 70 shows a year, the cost for fuel just for shows easily tops more than $2 million a year by my calculations. The Navy says it budgets $40 million a year for the team. But that doesn’t appear to include all costs, such as the price of a jet when a replacement is needed. Some reports have put the total annual cost as high as $200 million a year for both teams.
• And then there’s the air pollution. The Blues’ F-18 jets and the C-130 companion plane each burn roughly 1,300 gallons of jet fuel per hour, by several estimates. That’s as much as 200,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per show, not including practice runs. Add to that the 3 million spectators who drive to the shows each year, producing about 40 million pounds of the greenhouse gas, and the Blues and the Thunderbirds are responsible for more carbon than a city the size of Crestview. Jet fuel, often dumped before landings, also is known to release a host of toxins, some of which end up in coastal waters. (The Navy has won awards for its use of biofuels in jets, but the impact is still huge.)
Certainly, the flight teams’ emissions and expenses are but a drop in the bucket compared to the entire U.S. military. But if this country is truly serious about reducing federal spending and limiting climate change, this is a good place to start.
The Blue Angels were launched in 1946 as a way to boost morale, show off U.S. airpower, recruit pilots, and fuel support for Naval aviation. Today, though, morale is high, U.S. air superiority doesn’t need showing off, and our terrorist enemies don’t engage us in aerial dogfights. Drones increasingly provide airstrikes against fighters on the ground.
The Blue Angels have had a glorious run and served a purpose. Let’s look upon that history fondly and honor the fallen pilots — with museum displays, flight simulators and privately funded airshows.
William Rabb is a freelance writer in Pensacola.