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Feeling blue: Indy Air Show canceled

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U.S. Navy Blue Angels F-18 Hornets
U.S. Navy Blue Angels F-18 Hornets

MT. COMFORT — The Indianapolis Air Show will not take off for a 17th  year.

The popular annual event at Indianapolis Regional Airport has become an early victim of the uncertainty surrounding significant federal budget cuts slated to go into effect Friday unless President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans can agree on a budget plan.

The show’s executive committee decided Monday evening to cancel this year’s event, scheduled for the weekend of June 15-16. Officials cited financial concerns stemming primarily from the possible absence of the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron that was to headline the show.

At the end of its last session, Congress stepped away from the so-called “fiscal cliff” by pushing back until March 1 a variety of automatic spending cuts split evenly between defense and domestic spending. Those cuts now being referred to as “sequestration.”

On the defense side, the cuts would potentially ground air demonstration teams such as the Blue Angels, and that uncertainty has made it tough to close sponsorship deals for the show, said Robert Duncan, chairman of the show’s executive committee.

The risk of going forward without a jet team was too significant to ignore, Duncan said.

“We have had slow sponsorship sales because of that uncertainty, and yesterday we had a sponsor pull out to the tune of $10,000. Those are hard to backfill,” Duncan said.

The International Council of Air Shows Inc. reports on its Web site that “the (military’s) current plan is to continue air show training and participation through March 31 and then end it on April 1.”

The plan includes suspending performances by the Blue Angels, the Air Force’s Thunderbirds as well as other military performances and displays, the council reported.

Other air shows have not reacted as decisively, according to a check Tuesday of shows’ websites and Facebook pages. Sites for the first two shows of the season,  for example – in California and in Key West, Fla., – were touting the Blue Angels’ appearances. The first of those shows is March 16. 

The Facebook page of the MacDill AirFest April 6-7 in Tampa, Fla., where the Blue Angels are scheduled to appear, acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the cuts and said in a post Tuesday: “Your AirFest team is continuing to make preparations to hold your AirFest in April. As of right now, we haven’t cancelled or received cancellations from any of our scheduled performers. However, we anticipate direction to cancel AirFest 2013 if the Department of Defense is directed to implement the sequestration requirements on 1 March.”

Websites for the four other shows scheduled in June offered no suggestion Tuesday that the shows were in peril.

But the worry here is palpable. When the Mt. Comfort air show has operated without the aerial theatrics of the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels, attendance and sponsorship has declined.

“Historically, there’s been approximately a 32 percent reduction in attendance when there was no jet team,” said Robert Thomson, special adviser to the executive committee who attended Monday’s meeting. “Attendance is lower; sponsorship declines; there’s less utilization of (corporate) chalets and banners. The committee was looking at that trend and applying it to the current year.”

Those revenue losses could not be ignored, even deducting the cost of hosting the demonstration squadron, given what show officials were hearing from staffers trying to sell sponsorships for this year, Thomson said.

“What was received and related to the committee was that many of the discussions centered on sequestration and whether the jet team was going to be here,” Thomson said. “And that made it hard to close the deals and hard to get the commitment from the sponsors.

“Part of this set is the expectation that the (Blue Angels) are going to be here.  That becomes part of the perceived value – that expectation,” Thomson said.

Add to the mix further uncertainty in the general economy, and officials said going forward with this year’s show was in their opinion “fiscally imprudent.”

“The last thing I want to do is take a significant financial risk and destroy the reputation of the show in the community by not being able to pay our bills,” Duncan said.

Moreover, show officials said they want the show get back to its roots as a fundraiser for Riley Hospital for Children, which had become a sticking point with the Department of Defense.

“The DOD doesn’t view Riley Hospital as a broad-based charity,” Duncan said.

That being the case, officials could not advertise the show as a fundraiser for the hospital and still meet the military’s requirements for fund raising. In recent years, the show’s primary beneficiary became the Central Indiana Community Foundation, through which the hospital receives funding.

“I don’t agree with that,” Duncan said. “We all have Riley kids, and our passion is to use the air show as a fund-raiser for Riley.”

This year, however, the show will be grounded.

“I think it was the right decision to make under all these variables,” Duncan said.

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