It’s hard to overstate all the good that flows to the South Sound from having Joint Base Lewis-McChord here – from the local pride that soars highest during times of war, to the economic engine that hums most steady during times of recession.
But being JBLM’s neighbor also requires tolerance, because all that soaring and humming takes a toll. The blasts of howitzer training can rattle windows late at night. The thumps of fast-attack helicopter exercises can frazzle nerves early in the morning. The newest noisemaker that some Pierce and Thurston county residents may eventually hear is known as HiMARS, a system of truck-mounted rockets that can create sonic booms. The Army has won permission to test them at JBLM.
For years, the base did a good job offsetting its disruptive din by hosting the JBLM Air Expo, a free, weekend-long summer celebration (daylight hours only) that cast America’s sounds of freedom in a positive light.
Base commanders should make sure the air show returns this summer. The last one was held in 2012, and that’s a long-enough wait.
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The show generates community goodwill and fist-pumping fun. The excitement peaked in 2008, when the expo brought an estimated 375,000 gawkers to the hot tarmac to watch aerobatic stunts and Air Force Thunderbirds pilots flying in their famous diamond formation.
The show was scaled back to every other year during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – understandable, as peacetime showmanship gave way to non-stop combat duties. That was followed by a four-year interval since the last show – also understandable, as the Pentagon carried out postwar budget cuts.
Now jet lovers may rightly wonder if the show will ever come back. And that wouldn’t be understandable at all.
A base spokesman told The News Tribune last week that planning has stopped for the 2016 air show that was announced, albeit tentatively, in December. To make matters more confusing, the Thunderbird demonstration team, the show’s headliner, still has JBLM on its calendar for Aug. 27-28.
The reason for the waffling is unclear.
Some have surmised the military’s focus on operational readiness, in a world complicated by enemies such as the Islamic State, has made air shows a low priority for base commanders. But that doesn’t account for the dozens of expositions planned around the country over the next two years, including the usual Navy Blue Angels performance at Seattle’s Seafair and a Thunderbirds show at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base in July 2017.
Some have called JBLM’s air-show ambivalence the symptom of a local joint-base structure where the Army takes the lead. It’s notable that the Thunderbirds are booked at three other joint bases in 2016-17, and all are Air Force commands.
Those bases know something that JBLM seems to have forgotten: Air shows are magical. They stir young children to dream of hypothetical adventures in the wild blue yonder, and old veterans to remember real ones.
A local expo also would provide a showcase for JBLM’s 62nd Airlift Wing, one of two C-17 superwings in the Air Force. It would recognize airmen who seldom see the parades and public homecoming ceremonies their Army colleagues do.
Those opportunities are vanishing like a F-16 vapor trail over the horizon. The JBLM expo wasn’t the only tradition that went away in 2012; so did military participation in the July 4 Freedom Fair air show on the Tacoma waterfront.
An air wing commander at Fairchild made an astute comment in 2014 when the air show returned there after a few years’ hiatus. “Spokane deserves to see American airmen telling their story,” he said.
He was correct. And the South Sound does, too.