Thunderbirds and Blue Angels: 2013 the Stealth Season


For all the people in Congress in Washington DC…. THANKS…. You are screwing up an American tradition.  If any of you read this, please drop me a note.  I’d love to chat.  Now that I got that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

I was sitting in Florida a couple week ago at the TICO airshow.  I went because I live in an area with snow, I belong to the Valiant Air Command, and it was the ONLY time the Thunderbirds were scheduled to perform in the USA during the 2013 airshow season.  In general the show was pretty darn good,  the people at the VAC work hard to put on an exceptional airshow and have been doing that for over 30 years.

The Thunderbirds flew on Friday and the weather was perfect.  If there was ever a great day for an airshow, that was it.  Saturday was overcast, gray skies and not a great day for photos, but still, a good day to watch them fly.  The crowd was there, vendors were busy (more on that later), everyone was happy.  Sunday wasn’t nearly as good.   As the Thunderbirds were starting the show, the weather got bad, winds kicked up and things went downhill.   The rain came, tents blew over, people left in a hurry.  The Thunderbirds stopped their show and returned to nearby Patrick AFB where they were staging out of.  Maybe it was God’s way of saying “I’m an airshow fan too and I’m not really happy this is  the last show of the season”.

In El Centro California on March 16th, the Blue Angels flew what would be one of two shows for the season.  A crowd of 35,000 had the opportunity to watch one of their two performances of the season.   The other performance was in Key West Florida at the same time as the Thunderbirds flew at TICO.  It was their last too.  Since 1946 the Blues have performed for over 427 million fans.  Their mission, like the Thunderbirds is pretty simple….

“Performances greatly assist the recruiting and retention goals for the military services, enhance esprit de corps among uniformed men and women and demonstrate the skills and capabilities of the Naval service to the American public and U.S. allies”

Their mission isn’t just to go to shows in America.   The Blue Angels performed in the Soviet Union in September 1992.  They fly all over the world.  The Thunderbirds have a “Block” of flags painted on each airplane showing the countries they have been to.  This summer in August and September the Thunderbirds were scheduled to perform in Asia; the Philippines, Guam, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, and Korea.  With all the problems in Korea now doesn’t anyone think that showing them how good we can fly wouldn’t be a bad idea?

 There is an organization called ICAS (International Council of Airshows) which has an annual meeting in Las Vegas in December.  Everyone belongs to it and its the trade show for airshows.  Performers, vendors, venues, etc, all attend.  Usually at the end of the meeting, the US airshow schedule is pretty well set.  Attending ICAS this year were Bob and Sandy Anderson of Tallahassee, they sell shirts at shows.  Specifically they sell Thunderbirds and Blue Angels shirts, they don’t just sell simple “airshow shirts”.   Bob and Sandy were kind enough to sit down at TICO and tell me a bit about life as an airshow vendor.

They do this job full time to support their family.  When they left ICAS they were scheduled for 40 shows.  After being in this business for 20 years, Bob bought a 37′ fifth wheel “toy hauler” which a camper with a garage on the back to haul ATVs and other off road vehicles.  He planned to use it as a traveling warehouse to haul the tent, significant stocks of shirts and other merchandise out on the road for weeks at a time (no room for ATVs here it’s all business).   Being able to camp on site saved them travel time from the hotels plus it allowed them to work longer hours.  To get discounts on shirts, they have to buy a lot of them.  After ICAS Bob ordered about all the shirts he figured he’d need for the entire season; 40 shows worth of shirts.

Two months later, Congress doesn’t pass a budget and the military jet teams stop flying.  At TICO, Bob said he was down to only 20 shows, with more that hadn’t cancelled yet..  Well 20 is better than nothing right?  Not really, having one of the teams there means that about 1/3 to 1/2 more people will come through the gate.  A show that is still held without the Blue Angels will suffer in attendance and may actually throw the promoters into the “red.”   For Bob and Sandy, they’ll sell something, but not nearly as much as they need to sell to even break even.

Worst of all its , it’s not just Bob and Sandy, but there are dozens of airshow vendors who work airshows exclusively who are really getting hurt here.

The USAF and Navy are shooting themselves in the foot and hurting themselves in terms of recruiting and public relations.  The Blue Angels are the face of the Navy.  If you live in Norfolk, you see the Navy every day.  If you live in St. Cloud, MN you only see the Navy when the Blues come to town.  The Blues and the Thunderbirds are the USAF and Navy to most Americans.  The amount saved isn’t that much.  The Navy says the Blue Angels cost about $40million and year and cancelling the season would save about $28million.  I’d assume the costs of the Thunderbirds are about the same.  In military terms, what is $28million, not very much.

For the Blue Angels alone, considering at least 30,000 people watching each performance and a 32 city US tour (with 2 or possibly 3 performances at each stop), I’d estimate 2.5 million people would see them.  Cities seem to agree the financial impact of having them in town is $2 to $3million, which is at least $50 million.   Considering other losses (tax revenue, etc) from their failure to appear, at a minimum they balance out.  Considering the Thunderbirds too, you need to double the numbers.    Them not performing represents some real damage to a lot of local economies.

Again the problem is with Congress in DC, this wasn’t something dreamed up by the teams or the Base Commanders at Nellis AFB or Pensacola NAS.  This airshow season is about as gone as John O’Connor’s replica Blue Angels Bearcat or Fat Albert lighting off JATO bottles.

So think of 2013 as the Stealth Season, for the airshows that didn’t happen.  Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again next year.   We would like to see you at one of the remaining airshows of the 2013 season.

I’d like to thank Col. Terry Yon at the Valiant Air Command for making this story possible.  Thunderbirds and Blue Angels shirts?  See Bob and Sandy at

You can contact the author at TNMark@Me.Com.

If a US Senator, Congressman or a member of their staff sees this, let me know, I’ll be happy to publish your thoughts on the matter and my comments.  Photographs taken at TICO 2013 and various other shows in the past.


Mark Hrutkay

Mark has been a member of the International Association of Aviation Photographers (ISAP) for several years and attends all their events and seminars. He has won several awards for his work and has been published in several aviation magazines, domestic and foreign. You can contact Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.

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