LAS VEGAS (KSNV MyNews3.com) -- The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds should resume training flights within a few days.
Temporary funding for flying hours has been restored, allowing the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron to resume flying again through the end of fiscal year 2013, Major Darrick Lee, the unit's public affairs officer, stated in a news release issued this morning.
The grounding affected about one-third of the Air Force's active-duty combat aircraft, including squadrons of fighters, bombers, and airborne warning and control craft.
Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia said planes in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific would become airborne again starting Monday.
The Defense Department received authority from Congress to shift about $7.5 billion from lower priority accounts to more vital operations.
The Air Force says the restored flying hours represent about $208 million of that allocation authorized by Congress.
The Thunderbirds will not resume aerial demonstrations previously scheduled for the 2013 calendar year.
Gen. Mike Hostage, Commander of Air Combat Command, announced earlier today the temporary restoration of flying hours that will be allocated to combat aircraft and crews across the command’s operational and test units, including the Thunderbirds. Due to sequestration, the team cancelled participation in air shows and stopped flying in April of this year.
While the return to the skies means a return to crucial training and development for Thunderbirds pilots and maintainers, the leader of the Combat Air Forces’ fleet cautions that this is the beginning of the process, not the end.
“Since April we’ve been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness,” said Hostage. “Returning to flying is an important first step but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery.”
The restoration of flying hours only addresses the next two and half months of flying up until Oct. 1. Lt.Col. Greg Moseley, Commander and Leader of the Thunderbirds, clarifies that the return to flying does not mean the team has been cleared to resume performing demonstrations. The team will resume training flights with the anticipation that it may be able to resume a limited number of aerial demonstrations next calendar year.
“We have a long road ahead of us and will take it one day at a time,” said Moseley. “This is the first step in safely returning the squadron to a mission-ready status.”
In an effort to maximize training while anticipating limited 2014 funding, ACC has also announced an extension of the tour length for officers currently serving with the Thunderbirds.
Moseley says the decision was difficult but necessary.
“It takes a significant amount of training to get our pilots qualified to safely execute with the team,” said Moseley. “Faced with limited funding in the future, we have to take every opportunity to ensure we put on a safe demonstration. Capitalizing on the experience we currently have is the right thing to do from a safety perspective, and it’s the right thing to do from a fiscal perspective.”
The 12 officer positions on the team are two-year tours of duty. By design, the position openings are staggered, allowing the squadron to maintain continuity of experience and leadership. This year, Thunderbirds 1,3, 6 and 8 were hired. The Thunderbirds announced the selection of these new officers in April. The decision to keep the current team rescinds this hiring announcement; the officers currently serving on the team will serve a third year.
Thunderbird fans in the Las Vegas area should see the red, white and blue jets take to the sky in the next few days.