Flying free from federal budget cuts that grounded them last year, the Navy's Blue Angels will zoom at Mach-1 over the Latrobe area on Sunday at the Westmoreland County Air Show.
But even at 700 mph, the Navy daredevils — and other flashy military demonstration teams — can't outrun questions about their future.
Congress is debating whether those teams land enough recruits to justify multimillion-dollar costs, especially in an era of Pentagon austerity. The sequestration budget deal between Congress and the White House is expected to trim $45 billion annually from the Defense budget, and lawmakers have slashed other noncombat programs such as ceremonial bands.
A Tribune-Review analysis of Defense spending on the Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds puts combined annual expenses at $70 million to $140 million, depending on how the budgets are calculated. The budget for the Army's Golden Knights is $303,000 this year without personnel costs, down 25 percent since 2012.
Military officials defend the teams as time-honored institutions that woo youngsters into uniforms.
Yet some experts say there's no way to track whether air shows lead to enlistments.
“We know that people who go to military air shows likely have served, or have no negative feelings about military service, and they're willing to reinforce that by taking their children to events like parades or air shows,” said David Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist and armed forces expert.
“There probably is a payoff there, but we don't know what it is yet. The only way to study that would be to ask people, year after year, whether they went to an air show and whether it influenced their decisions as young adults to enlist.”
The Navy and Air Force teams take turns headlining about 70 of the more than 300 air shows held annually in the United States, according to the Virginia-based International Council of Air Shows, the industry's trade organization.
Without providing detailed budgets, Air Force officials told Congress that the Thunderbirds cost taxpayers about $35.5 million a year.
Air Force Maj. Darrick Lee said the Thunderbirds' budget this year is about $30 million, not including personnel costs.
When in host cities for days, Lee said, “We're going into schools and meeting with a wide range of citizens. We're educating people about their Air Force.”
Air Force studies say it consistently met enlistment goals since 1999, including 2013, when sequestration grounded planes.
With the Thunderbirds mothballed, the Air Force and Air National Guard enlisted 44,858 recruits — 2,266 more than planned, according to the Pentagon.
The Navy says it spends about $40 million annually on the Blue Angels program, including the Marines Corps' “Fat Albert” C-130J Super Hercules support plane. With the joint Navy-Marine program grounded last year, the two services exceeded enlistment goals with 86,614 active and reserve personnel.
A 2012 analysis performed at the Naval Postgraduate School by senior officers Andre Fields, Donald Gardner and Christopher Cousino suggests the Navy failed to disclose the full costs of the Blue Angels.
Adding up the 2009 estimated expenditures for pay, housing, medical services, retirement benefits, fuel, maintenance and aircraft costs spread over time — plus the risks of damage to planes or injury to personnel — brings the Blue Angels' real price tag to nearly $99 million per year, at least twice the official estimate, they said.An F-18 Hornet for the Blue Angels costs more than $21 million. A new “Fat Albert” runs nearly three times that, according to recent congressional testimony.
“The Navy leaders left out relevant costs,” explained Hoover Institution research fellow David R. Henderson, a professor of economics who supervised the analysis.
Henderson notes he does not speak for the Navy, but he defends the study and its conclusion: When it comes to recruiting, the team's “costs outweighed the benefits.”
For every $100 spent on the team, he said, the Navy recoups 83 cents in recruiting benefits — and it remains a bad deal even if the Navy's lower cost estimates are used.
The Navy did not return messages seeking comment.
Industry surveys reveal air show spectators are similar to those who watch professional tennis or golf: overwhelmingly white, married, well-educated and affluent.
Couples in their mid-40s, who bring children, dominate the crowds; two of every five adults boast a household income above $75,000.
“For advertisers, we're right in the sweet spot,” said International Council of Air Shows President John Cudahy.
But it might not be so sweet for military recruiters.
An Army National Guard sports marketing campaign landed the service in the congressional hot seat. A 2012 report found the Guard spent $32 million on NASCAR and IndyCar sponsorships but could not prove it netted one recruit. Like 66 percent of adults at an air show, about seven in 10 NASCAR fans is older than 35 — too old to enlist.
Sociologists say military recruits are a diverse group, but certain factors make someone more likely to enlist. Generally ages 19 to 21, they typically grew up in single-parent or nontraditional families and enlisted a year after high school. The more education and wealth their parents have, the less likely they will join.
The proportion of blacks and Hispanics enlisting is far larger than those attending air shows.
Beyond recruitment or a temporary economic spark, experts say air shows might fulfill a more important purpose.
Only a few Americans are able or willing to enlist. Congress continues to shave costs by closing and consolidating bases. Veterans from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam are aging, and the military likely never will be as large as during the draft era.
So for millions of Americans, air shows are one of the few tangible ties to their armed forces.
Military branches “want to continue to connect to the American people, and air shows do that so organically,” Cudahy said. “When you go to a show, you'll see military aircraft from earlier times next to the most high-tech machinery built today.
“Only 1 percent of Americans will serve in the military, which is why air shows have become a continuing conversation with the American people. They showcase the military at its finest and remind everyone what a great brand they are.
“It's hard to watch a cutting-edge ballistic submarine going through its paces, but everyone can look up to the sky and see the Navy's Blue Angels.”
Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org.