Sequester cuts taking toll at high-flying Oshkosh air show

For pilots and aviation enthusiasts, Mecca is not in Saudi Arabia, it’s in Wisconsin.

Once a year, they make the pilgrimage to Oshkosh, about an hour north of Milwaukee, for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s “Airventure.”

When planes and pilots come from all over the world and acrobats, bi-planes and fighters streak across the runway, little Whitman regional airport becomes the busiest in the world.

But this year, for the first time in six decades of the air show, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that due to the sequester, there was no money to get air traffic controllers to Wisconsin or pay them overtime for the big show, which this summer began July 29 and ends Aug 4.

So the EAA has to pay their expenses out of its own budget and would-be profits at the end of the show -- money that usually is donated to youth education programs.

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    So far the EAA has put up half the costs for the controllers’ overtime, housing, transportation and incidentals and, claiming an arbitrary application of budget cuts, is petitioning a federal court to step in. The court could rule in mid-August.

    When the FAA made its announcement about the air traffic controllers, tickets had already been sold, and with 70 days to go, the organization needed to come up with $447,000 or the big air show would be grounded.

    “We’d already contracted, sold and had in place this event,” said EAA Chairman Jack Pelton, “You can’t define being held hostage more accurately than that.”

    Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), along with a cadre of other senators and representatives, appealed to FAA administrator Michael Huerta who responded in writing. “The current budget environment is requiring us to make difficult budget decisions,” he said.

    However, pilots at the air show say the FAA is making political decisions, encouraged by an administration that has never been friendly to aviation and a president who refers to “tax breaks for corporate jets” when trying to illustrate the separation of the wealthy and poor.

    “Everything about the sequester is a budgeting gimmick,” says EAA member Jeff Cook. “There’s a lot of other areas that could’ve taken budget cuts, but they took the politically expedient one to make the most noise.”

    The big draws at the air show, the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, already fell to the budget cuts.