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MacDill turns to private money to make AirFest work

Members of Joint Communications Support Element prepare to board a C-17 Globemaster II during Airfest 2010 at MacDill Air Force Base, on March 21, 2010.

TAMPA, Fla. — It is the era of the frugal air show. Get used to it.

MacDill Air Force Base's Tampa Bay AirFest 2014 opens Saturday with the requisite aerial thrills and screaming aircraft despite a one-third cut in its military budget that had imperiled the popular event.

Fewer military aircraft will fly this year with civilian fliers filling the gap. Otherwise, the 200,000 or more spectators expected this weekend will notice few other big changes.

The Thunderbirds are still coming. Planes of every kind will line the runway. Earplugs are still a good idea.

But this year's event is the first with a hybrid AirFest funding model that relied on up to $250,000 in private money raised mostly in Tampa Bay's business community. Without the cash, the AirFest would have been canceled for the second year in a row, officials say.

With shrinking military budgets, private financing is expected by some to become a staple of military air shows for years to come. The 2013 AirFest was canceled due to the automatic federal spending cuts.

Of the money raised this year for AirFest, local businessman Chase Stockton, who led the fundraising effort, said, "I think future shows will probably need even more than that."

"We certainly can't take the air shows for granted," said Stockton, founder of Panther International, a Pinellas web development and software company. "I worry less about the future of an air show in an Air Force town like Tampa and the bay area. A lot of people stepped up and answered the call."

The two largest donations include $25,000 from the Tampa Bay Lightning and $15,000 from Tampa International Airport.

At least $150,000 needed to be raised to guarantee the AirFest would open. With that goal met, Stockton said he hoped to reach the full $250,000.

Stockton, who could not say exactly how much had been raised, said some minor AirFest needs were unaffordable. That included hotel rooms for all military air crews. Some will have to stay in base barracks, he said.

Though fewer military aircraft are flying in the event, much of the inventory of Air Force aircraft will be on display.

The air show is still a free event for spectators.

But another 2014 first is premium seating closer to the runway at $15 per person. MacDill officials said those tickets are offered by a private vendor the Air Force hired in response to popular demand.

MacDill officials said that cash does not defray their costs. Money goes toward the vendor's cost of offering the service.

The Air Force nationally has been forced to relax some of its strict rules governing the way it can fund public events at bases, said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, an industry group.

For instance, MacDill typically cannot accept private donations.

"The way the Air Force works, you have to ask for their permission to give them money," said Stockton, who got permission.

Some in the industry have talked about charging admission for all spectators, Cudahy said. But in the short term, that seems a non-starter for the Air Force, which views the air shows as good public relations.

"They'll never charge for admission," said George Cline, civilian "air boss" of AirFest who will direct air traffic. "They can't do that. They won't do that."

Questions of funding aside, MacDill officials say the show will be as exciting as ever.

"There will be something every minute flying, making flips and turns and making noise," Parker said.
 

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