After several months of sequestration-mandated budget cuts ground many of their planes, the Air Force has found a way for most of its combat units to resume flying. Since, you know, they're called the Air Force.
Among the units that are returning to the skies this week are the Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration team that was forced to cancel several public appearances this summer, after mandatory budget cuts forced the military (and all federal departments) to cut back on spending.
The problem, of course, is that pilots and air crews need practice and all the simulators in the world can't duplicate the training that goes on in the skies. Top Air Force generals had been complaining for weeks that readiness was suffering because of the sequestration, which forced 33 air squadrons, including "combat-coded fighter and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance units," to stand down back in April. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh III said in June that, "We can't just all of a sudden accelerate training and catch up. It costs up to 2 1/2 times as much to retrain a squadron as it does to keep it trained." Fortunately, the service found a way to divert funds from less essential accounts so the planes could get off the ground again. Unfortunately, it will still take many more weeks before the affected units are at full strength and readiness once again.
As for the Thunderbirds, even if they start flying soon they may not ready to rejoin the air show circuit just yet. All their scheduled appearances for this year were officially canceled as of April 1, but if they can get back up to speed before September, there's still a chance that fans will get to see them fly this year. As Julian Barnes of The Wall Street Journal points out, at the end of September the fiscal year restarts and without a sequestration fix from Congress, the air crews could all be grounded again, just as they are completing their training. Maybe that doesn't mean much to Congresspeople who patched the FAA's sequester problem while ignoring everyone else's, but it sure means a lot to fans of aerial acrobatics.