By Kaija Wilkinson
MOBILE, Ala., March 1 (Reuters) - Blue Angels pilot Dave Tickle said he is focused on practicing maneuvers for an upcoming show in California instead of worrying about how federal spending cuts will threaten performances this year by the U.S. Navy's renowned flight demonstration squadron.
With $85 billion in automatic cuts due to take effect on Friday, millions of fans across the country will likely miss out on the precision flying team's thrilling shows this year.
Blue Angels shows scheduled in more than two dozen cities between April and September are expected to be canceled as part of the cuts, said the team's spokeswoman, Lieutenant Katie Kelly. Some shows featuring the Blue Angels already have been called off in the face of budget uncertainties.
The grounding would be a sentimental loss for fans but not as serious as other reductions to defense spending, which President Barack Obama said could threaten Navy readiness. The Defense Department said the cuts would slash ship and aircraft maintenance, curtail training and result in 22 days' unpaid leave for most of the Pentagon's 800,000 civilian employees.
Programs such as the Blue Angels would take a back seat to "making sure ships are seaworthy and planes are airworthy for the war fighters who are operating overseas," said Lieutenant John Supple, spokesman for the Chief of Naval Air Training in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The news has saddened longtime fans, disappointed city leaders and sparked an online petition to the White House to save the Blue Angels' season. About 1,200 people had signed as of Thursday.
"They're an American icon, and they really resonate in a military town," said Ashton Hayward, mayor of Pensacola, Florida, home to the naval air station where the Blue Angels are based.
Pensacola's Blue Angels beach show each July pumps an additional $2.5 million into the local economy, according to a 2012 study.
"People plan their annual family trips around the shows and the impact on business is phenomenal," Hayward said. "If the Blue Angels end, it's going to be a sad, sad day for not just us, but for millions of people all over the country."
SHOWS CALLED OFF
Air shows scheduled for May at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, and for June in Indianapolis, already have been canceled, organizers and U.S. Air Force officials announced in recent weeks.
The Air Force said its Thunderbirds exhibition flying team also is expected to be grounded if the so-called sequestration cuts happen.
The budget cuts will affect cities from Seattle to North Kingstown, Rhode Island, where the Rhode Island National Guard Air Show draws thousands of visitors to the small town each year.
The city's Quonset Air Base closed in the 1970s, but a sense of military pride still runs deep. Losing the Blue Angels would deal a huge blow for the show in late June, said Elizabeth Dolan, North Kingstown's town council president.
"Everybody looks forward to when they come," she said. "They fly right up over my house, and it's amazing and emotional to watch."
The Blue Angels program began in 1946 and costs about $40 million a year. Cancelling the bulk of the performing season would save about $28 million, according to Navy officials.
Because of the timing of the cuts, the Angels will still perform in March at the El Centro Air Show in southern California and the Southernmost Air Spectacular show in Key West, Florida.
The 130-person team, which includes seven pilots, consists of members who have served in high-level tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should the budget cuts go into effect, the team would be reassigned until there is enough money for them to take to the skies again, Supple said.
Tickle, a 32-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, said he was inspired to become an expert naval pilot after watching Blue Angels performances during family vacations to Pensacola when he was a child. He is now a lieutenant commander in the Navy and the Blue Angels' lead solo pilot.
"I remember looking up at these shining blue and gold precision aircraft and thinking, 'I want to do that.' It gave me a feeling of amazement and pride," he said. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Nick Zieminski)
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