SOUTHWESTERN SAN JUANS – They were halfway across the sky before you ever even saw them – the tight, sleek pack of F-16 fighter jets, traveling far faster than the speed of sound, that would buzz the mountain communities of the southwestern San Juans every Fourth of July.
This Independence Day, however, their pilots won’t take to the skies.
Due to the federal budget sequestration of 2013 and ensuing spending cuts, the U.S. Department of Defense has directed the Air Force and other branches of the military to cancel all aerial demos for at least the remainder of the fiscal year.
The far-reaching directive applies to all Active-Duty, Reserve and Guard units across the country, including the 120th Fighter Squadron, the unit of the Colorado Air National Guard 140th Wing located at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora that’s usually charged with executing patriotic flyover missions in Colorado.
Even the Air Force Thunderbirds, along with the Army’s and Navy’s own aviation precision demonstration teams – the Silver Eagles and Blue Angels – are grounded for the 2013 season. The Air Force has announced that it needs to dial back its flying hours by as much as 18 percent altogether, or approximately 203,000 hours, this fiscal year, in response to the sequester, prioritizing shorter training missions that directly support combat readiness over the patriotic aerial displays put on for residents of the southwestern San Juans in recent years.
No one’s more upset about the flyover cancellations than the pilots of the 120th themselves. “The Colorado Air National Guard is certainly not doing this by choice; our soldiers and airmen love the chance to get out in communities,” said Captain Darin Overstreet, the Public Affairs Officer for Buckley Air Force Base’s Air National Guard Unit.
Adding to the sting, the cancellations come in the midst of the 120th Fighter Squadron’s 90th anniversary year. The squadron is a descendent organization of the World War I 120th Aero Squadron, established in 1917 (reformed in 1923 as the 120th Observation Squadron).
In 1946, the 120th was the first federally recognized Air National Guard unit. For a time, it boasted its own elite aerial demonstration team – the Minute Men – an Air National Guard counterpart to the Air Force Thunderbirds, who from 1953-1956 flew over 100 air shows in 47 states and five foreign countries, Overstreet said.
The Colorado Air National Guard is federally funded by the Air Force; when members deploy overseas, they are considered Air Force personnel. In recent years, the 120th Fighter Squadron has deployed multiple times to Iraq and the Pacific, as well as covering National Special Security Events such as the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
The significant difference between the Air Force and the Air National Guard is that the latter entity has both a state and a federal mission. That’s why, for example, Gov. Hickenlooper is presently able to call on the Colorado Air National Guard to support ongoing wildfire missions, including a deployment to the raging West Fork Complex fire.
But the pilots of the 120th have always eagerly anticipated their Fourth of July patriotic flyovers as a welcome change of pace from such duties.
During a typical mission, they fly in two shifts – a morning crew and an afternoon crew – with two to four pilots in each crew, reaching as many as 20 communities across the state.
Each flyover must initiate with a request from a community, Overstreet said. The pilots then work with community event coordinators to make sure they hit each community’s timeline as closely as possible, while at the same time developing a realistic flight path around the state.
In the San Juan mountains, their route over the past several years has generally encompassed Lake City, Silverton, Ouray and Telluride.
Flyovers demand time and expertise not just from the pilots, but also from ground and maintenance crews. Dollarwise, the missions cost roughly $7,500-$10,000 per flight hour, taking into account the cost of fuel, maintenance and personnel.
While patriotic flyovers are a treat for spectators, the Air Force National Guard has always considered them to be important training missions, as well. “The pilots get to practice arriving from a certain direction and reaching a target at a specific time,” Overstreet said. “It’s as much a benefit to them as to the community.”
Rod Rasmussen has served as Ouray’s annual fly-over coordinator on behalf of the Ouray Volunteer Fire Department for the past several years. He sees heavy political implications in this year’s cancellations. “Flight demos are some of the best recruiting tools the military has,” he said.
With two pilot sons who are themselves Air Force captains, and a nephew who flies an F-18 Super Hornet in the Navy, Rasmussen has special insight into the larger-scale costs of sequestration which the the nation is bearing in terms of military preparedness, pointing to “incredibly troubling” cuts to flight training which are currently taking place. “We can’t skimp on something as important as national defense,” he said.
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