The U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds demonstration team is heading back into the air as the service resumes training flights that had been grounded by across-the-board budget cuts.
Combat aircraft from multiple commands are flying again after the service obligated $208 million for flight hours from a $1.8 billion shift in budget allocations authorized by Congress, the Air Force said Monday in a statement.
Although the Thunderbirds will resume training flights, the squadron won’t be restoring its canceled schedule of air shows for this year. It is acting “with the anticipation that it may be able to resume a limited number of aerial demonstrations next calendar year,” Maj. Darrick Lee, a spokesman for the Thunderbirds, said in a separate statement on its Web site.
The cancellation of pilot flying hours for training began soon after the automatic budget cuts, called sequestration, were triggered in March. The Pentagon is absorbing about $37 billion in cuts through Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.
More than 650,000 civilian Defense Department workers have also been forced to take 11 unpaid days off under sequestration.
“Since April we’ve been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness,” Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of the Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, said in the statement. “Returning to flying is an important first step, but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery.”
About 300 combat and training aircraft from multiple combat units will have flying hours restored, Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis, an Air Combat Command spokesman, said by e-mail.
Planes may be grounded again after Oct. 1, when the beginning of a new fiscal year will require an additional $52 billion in Defense, unless Congress and President Obama agree on a deficit-reduction alternative.
Hostage said the shift in funds to finance flight hours means less money for investments to modernize the force.
“We are using investment dollars to pay current operational bills, and that approach is not without risk to our long-term effectiveness,” he said in the statement. “We can’t mortgage our future.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, issued a statement praising the Air Force for “working creatively to keep our pilots in the skies, if only temporarily, but this decision is a Band-Aid solution that cannot be sustained.”