Navy 'Salute to America' Flyovers Come as Service Faces Aviation Budget Shortfall

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U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, Delta perform a Delta Flat Pass at the Jacksonville Beach Sea and Sky Spectacular Air Show. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andrea Perez)
U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, Delta perform a Delta Flat Pass at the Jacksonville Beach Sea and Sky Spectacular Air Show. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andrea Perez)

The Navy will fly some of its most high-profile aircraft over the nation's capital this week, even as it faces an aviation budget shortfall. But officials say none of the squadrons participating are at risk of cutting flight hours due to funding woes.

Two F-35C Joint Strike Fighters from Naval Air Station Lemoore in California, a pair of Virginia-based F/A-18E Super Hornets and the Navy's Blue Angels demonstration team are scheduled to participate in President Donald Trump's "Salute to America" Fourth of July event on the National Mall, according to ABC News.

The flights, which can run tens of thousands of dollars per aircraft each hour, come as Navy leaders grapple with a $100 million-plus shortfall in its aviation budget for the final quarter of fiscal 2019. That has left leaders facing decisions about cuts to flight hours, shutting down an air wing, reducing helicopter operations or stopping additional flyovers, USNI News reported last week.

F-35 flights can run about $44,000 per hour, according to statistics provided to Military.com last year.

But a Navy official said the squadrons involved in the commander in chief's celebration aren't at risk of cutting future flight operations as a result of their participation. Each Navy aviation unit is given a certain number of flight hours annually, the official. Those flying this week will be drawing from that allocation.

"We're not using any units that don't have any flight hours left," the official said.

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Aircraft flying long distances to reach the event will also complete training requirements along the way. That's common if, for example, Super Hornets fly from California to Florida for an event, the official said. Low-level navigation training is one example of a training requirement that could be fulfilled in transit.

"That is happening here," the official added. "Some specific aircraft will be meeting training objectives on their way to the capital."

John Venable, a retired Air Force officer who commanded the Thunderbirds, that service's aerial demonstration squadron, said that even if flyovers are expensive, the military benefits from these events.

"People will look at this at 'Trump's parade,' but this is a huge deal for recruiting for all of the services," he said. "It's something that inspires people to serve.

"To show ... some of the coolest [aircraft], from fighters to tanks, is one of the great gifts we can give the American people for one day, just for one moment, and let them see something they have every right to be proud of."

The price of sending four or even 20 aircraft out barely registers against the service's overall operations budget, Venable added, but it's likely to be a memorable event for any American watching.

"The value of that is really hard to calculate, but it sends shivers up and down the spines of everyone who sees it," said Venable, who now serves as a senior research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "... You're talking about some folks who pay a lot of money in taxes for the military and never get to see it otherwise, and [this can be] a pretty impactful moment."

The Navy canceled one air show last weekend as it assesses how to "best manage ... resources and costs from the remainder of the fiscal year," Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces, told Military.com last week.

The Blue Angels first announced on Sunday that it would be canceling a scheduled practice and autograph event in Pensacola, Florida, due to a change in the team's schedule. Pilots will now be performing in Washington, D.C.

The team is slated to head to the Kansas City Air Show in Missouri this weekend, according to a public schedule.

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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