War Takes Its Toll on Air Shows Back Home

Despite many military aircraft deployed overseas on anti-terrorism missions and for the war in Iraq, a much-anticipated Kentucky Derby Festival air show will be flying high this Saturday.

"We've got a pretty full show, amazingly, even with the overseas commitments," said Stacy Yates, spokeswoman for the festival.

The Thunder Over Louisville air show draws crowds into the hundreds of thousands every year for its eye-popping aerial acts of military aircraft, fireworks extravaganza and civilian plane displays. This year's show, which will salute the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' historic airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., with the theme, "Centennial of Flight," will wave lots of red, white and blue.

But as planning continued for the show and more military aircraft were sent to Iraq and elsewhere, the supply of aircraft dwindled.

Stealth bomber jets, B-2s and huge airlift aircraft were leaving their military bases and heading for the Persian Gulf.

Nonetheless, with the help of the Kentucky Air National Guard, Thunder producers have been able to fill their show with enough wings and stunts to give this year's attendees a great show.

"The Thunder air show is faring a little better than most air shows nationally," Yates said. "We're in pretty good shape for a full show."

But Thunder's success doesn't necessarily mirror the luck other air shows have had this year in trying to get enough military air craft in the air to dazzle spectators. Military air shows, in particular, are being hit hard.

John Cudahy, president of the Leesburg, Va.-based International Council of Air Shows, told Foxnews.com that about 15 to 16 military air shows have been canceled this year; about 75 to 80 percent of those are because of deployments.

"Generally, the people who are least able to run a show right now are the airlift people," he said.

Combat and transport airlines used to bring tanks, troops, artillery pieces, ammunition and humanitarian relief are hard to come by these days, since they are badly needed in overseas operations. Refueling planes and airlift base personnel are especially scarce.

"And that's just because they're just not there at all," Cudahy said, adding that combat aircraft and personnel are also in short supply. "There's nobody left on the base -- they've all gone overseas and if they're not overseas, they're so busy they don't have two minutes to rub together."

Air shows scheduled for Niagara Falls, Travis and Beale Air Force base in California, and Lake Havusa in Arizona already were canceled for reasons unrelated to the war or terrorism threats.

Even before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Airfest 2003 at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., was canceled because its refueling wing and personnel were deployed overseas or were busy with other operations. Charleston Air Force Base -- home to the 437th C-17Airlift Wing -- also canceled its May 10 airshow because of "operational requirements."

Some bases have canceled their air shows simply because they don't want hundreds of people on their grounds for security reasons.

But these numbers are only a small percentage of the 100 or so military air shows each year. Civilian air shows aren't affected as much.

Thunder has actually benefited from other air shows being canceled; some aircraft originally scheduled for other events volunteered their performances at Thunder after their own were canceled.

Thunder's air show this year will include military aircraft such as: one A-10; four Army AH-64 helicopters from Ft. Knox in Kentucky; one B-1; C-13 Hercules and C-130; one F-15 demonstration; four F-15s and an F-16; an F-18 demo; one KC-135; MC-130 Hercules; MH-53 Marine helicopter; T-1 Jayhawk; T-37 and four T-38s; four UH-60 helicopters; and a U.S. Coast Guard demo.

Civilian aircraft will include aerial performers such as: the Red Baron Squadron, which pay tribute to these early Barnstormers and the early days of aviation; the Lima Lima Flight Team, a six-aircraft formation aerobatic team; and the Quicksilver Wingwalking Act, which consists of nail-biting performances of people performing tricks while hanging off the plane.

The Kentucky Air National Guard made it its mission to make sure plenty of military aircraft were available. Aircraft are even flying in from the West Coast.

"It's part of our mission as Kentucky guardsmen to support the local commitment," said Lt. Col. Greg Nelson, the Kentucky Air Guard's project officer for Thunder. "This year's been harder of course … there's only been a handful of us that are here to support it, but we've been very successful in getting some military aircraft lined up."

What makes this year even more special is that the show will be taped and rebroadcast to deployed personnel on July 4.

"It's a very patriotic show … the civilian sponsors that put it on really wave the red, white and blue, and we appreciate it, so we try to support it," Nelson said.

"It's actually very gratifying to see that the senior leadership in both the Air Force and the Navy have made a pretty public commitment to maintaining air shows and for carrying on back home in as normal fashion as possible even in a war," Cudahy said.

The most popular performers at air shows everywhere are typically the combat aircraft.

The Air Force has two A-10 warthogs, two F-16 Vipers, two F-15 Eagles and others that each perform at six different shows almost every weekend throughout air show season -- mid-March to mid-November. Between them all, they fly 18 different air shows a month for seven months.

F-117 stealth fighters and B-2 stealth bombers also do fly-overs for shows when they're available.

"The Air Force is absolutely committed to having no change in that schedule, even in war," Cudahy said.

The Navy also has two F-18 hornets and an F-14 Tomcat participating in demonstrations, as well as its six-plane Blue Angels team.

"Even as they do what they're organized to do, which is wage war and defeat the enemy and so forth, there are parts of the military that are concerned with the bigger pictures -- which includes recruiting," Cudahy said.

"The military recognizes this is an important time to be putting forth their message that the military is a viable option for a career."