After a year-long grounding, military aircraft are returning to air shows this year.
Just not in Tacoma.
For a second consecutive year, the Freedom Fair air show on Tacoma’s waterfront will be an all-civilian affair. Despite attempts to secure military demonstrations, the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration will be bereft of active duty jet fighters, bombers and helicopters.
Even Tacoma’s unofficial bird, the Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III, will be a no-show.
The Air Force, like all branches of the military, has a limited schedule of engagements with the public in 2014 after last year’s sequestration and government shutdown.
In 2013, no military aircraft participated in any U.S. air shows. This year the Department of Defense is allowing only three Air Force assets to appear at public events, said Pamela Friend, a spokeswoman with the Air Force’s Engagements and Outreach Division.
The three are the Thunderbirds (the Air Force’s precision flying team), the F-22 Raptor (the world’s most advanced fighter) and the Wings of Blue (the Air Force’s parachute demonstration team).
“Tacoma was eligible for consideration for the Thunderbirds and the F-22 demonstration (for 2014),” Friend said. “Unfortunately, based on the weekend they chose to hold the event, there were other air shows going on that our assets were going to.”
In years past, two to five active duty military aircraft participated in the Freedom Fair air show, said organizer Doug Fratoni.
The U.S. Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels, will appear at Seattle’s Seafair in August. The Thunderbirds will fly in May at SkyFest – the air show and open house at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane.
Even smaller shows are getting military aircraft in 2014. The Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro, just outside of Portland, will host an F-22 and a U.S. Marines Harrier jump jet. Also on the schedule at the three-day show in September are the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds jet team.
The annual attendance at the Hillsboro show is 60,000. Estimated crowds at Tacoma’s Freedom Fair are 125,000, according to Gary Grape, director of events. He said attendance was down in 2013, and he speculated it was because of the lack of military aircraft.
Grape promises a thrilling air show this year but admits the big draws are the active duty military aircraft.
“The folks love those big-gun jets,” Grape said.
Fratoni applied for military demos for 2014’s Freedom Fair, as he’s done for the past seven years.
“Tacoma’s been pretty blessed,” he said. “I’ve had the Harrier a couple of times, the F-18 about six times, the F-16 demo team three times, the A-10 demo, the F-22 demo. They have supported us in the past, and we’ve really appreciated it.”
The Oregon air show also took a hit in attendance in 2013.
“The anecdotal evidence said that the people that didn’t come stayed away because of the (lack of) military jets at the show,” said the show’s spokesman, Herb Gillen. “We expect to have a great show this year because of the strong military showing.”
The F-22 and its pilot wowed crowds at Freedom Fair in 2012 with maneuvers along the Ruston waterfront, including a “heritage flight” with a World War II era P-51 Mustang. Also on the roster that day were a U.S. Navy F-18F Hornet, two military helicopters and a C-17.
The huge C-17 transport jets fly numerous times a day over Tacoma on their way to or from McChord Field. The plane was a no-show at Freedom Fair in 2013 and it will be again this year.
A C-17 flew at a Singapore trade show in February and another, from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, will appear as part of the static display at Fairchild’s air show.
“The base assets you see at McChord or Fairchild, specifically the C-17, other than participating at Air Force open houses are not eligible to participate anywhere else,” Friend said.
The C-17 that flew at Singapore was arranged through a different process, Friend said.
“They are done from an operational standpoint, and there a lot of international sensitivities when we deal with our trade shows,” she said.
Public outreach activities for 2014 represent a 45 percent reduction from 2012, said Master Sgt. Todd Wivell, spokesman for JBLM’s 62nd Airlift Wing. That includes 20
F-22 appearances at public events in 2014, he said. JBLM is scheduled to have an air show in 2016. The last air show at base was in 2012.
“We understand how important it is to remain connected with the American public and reinforce the trust and confidence in the Air Force,” Wivell said.
According to the Air Force, more than 800 events were canceled or withdrawn in 2013 and about 45 million people did not get the chance to see the Air Force in action.
“We get anywhere from 120 to 150 air shows that request the same assets,” Friend said. “The Air Force looks very carefully at the dates and locations received. We did our best to make sure we were not attending the same location. We tried to keep our assets as widely dispersed across the U.S. as we could.
The Air Force and Navy coordinate the appearances of their two premier teams (The Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels, respectively) to make sure they don’t overlap, Friend said.
“You would never see them at the same event and very rarely are they within 150 miles of each other,” she said.
The Thunderbirds’ appearance at Fairchild is their only one in Washington in 2014.
“That is sort of allowing us to reach out to Washington,” Friend said.
After being turned down for all military participation for 2014, Fratoni applied for the Blue Angels in 2015.
“I doubt I’ll get them as they always go to Seafair,” he said.
“We do all the things you’re supposed to do, but I really don’t know how they decide where they’re going to go,” Fratoni said.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541