LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. — The F-22 is the nation's most advanced fighter jet and is capable of making hairpin turns, doing a power loop that looks like a back flip and maneuvering backward after stalling its engines, giving it the appearance of sliding through the sky. The fifth-generation fighter makes maneuvers that other planes simply can't do, resulting in jaw dropping reactions from air show spectators.
That last capability is what the Air Force is thrilled to have in its public relations arsenal once again. The F-22 Demonstration Team's 2013 air show schedule was cancelled due to automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration, but Air Force leaders were able to schedule 20 performances for the stealth fighter this year at a total cost of $1.4 million.
The Navy has also restored some of its highly popular Fleet Week programs this year, allowing parts of the country without a significant Navy presence to interact with sailors and Marines while gaining access to warships that typically only make port visits overseas, among other things.
While the military's domestic outreach efforts have not reached their pre-sequestration levels, as the weather warms up and more people find themselves outdoors the public will have its best opportunity to interact with its military away from their home bases in more than a year.
"We try to visit schools and hospitals, take the air show to people who couldn't otherwise see it," said Capt. John Cummings, the Virginia-based F-22 Demonstration Team pilot, ahead of an air show in Virginia Beach next week. "A really big air show, pretty much everywhere we walk around, there will be somebody who stops us and wants to have a conversation. It's tough to go from one place to another, but that's why we're out there."
The Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds are also flying again, while the Army's Golden Knights parachute team is leaping from planes all over the country once more after being grounded last year as well.
For the military, outreach events allow them to showcase their capabilities to taxpayers who are footing the bill and help drum up support for military programs in an austere fiscal environment while reminding them that the nation remains involved in overseas conflicts. Most of the events are considered legitimate training tools, as well. For example, all of the maneuvers Cummings performs can be used in aerial dogfights.
The events also help with recruiting, provide an economic boost to local communities where the events are held and help put a human face on issues important to individual members of the military, such as spending on pay and benefits.
Earlier this week, three Norfolk-based ships sailed north for the Navy's premier Fleet Week event in New York, allowing it to tap into the country's largest media market. The event costs the Navy about $3 million, including travel, training and security. The Coast Guard and Marines also sent personnel to the event, bringing an influx of about 1,500 military personnel into the area through Tuesday. In 2012, the Navy provided twice as many ships, but officials say they're still getting a strong response even with a smaller presence.
"It's an iconic city. We have a long history of the city doing Fleet Week," said Lt. Cmdr. Pat Staub, Fleet Week New York lead planner for Carrier Strike Group Eight. "It was important to come back. The people of New York really missed us last year and they have really opened their arms. We have a lot of welcome home kind of celebrations and that kind of mood."
This year, the Navy scheduled fleet weeks in New York; Port Everglades, Florida; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco and Seattle.