Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Enjoy the air show — you paid for it

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Let’s move beyond the $320 million in aircraft you have bought that will be performing at this weekend’s Great State of Maine Air Show at Brunswick Naval Air Station. And let’s forget the roughly $12 million in annual salaries you’re paying for the people whose entire, year-round, full-time jobs are to use those aircraft to show off the military prowess of the United States by, um, flying really really fast very close to the ground.

The real concern is, and should be, the attitude of the government toward your money. John James IV, director of public affairs at Brunswick Naval Air Station, originally told the Phoenix no tax money was being spent on the show, in which five of 13 performance groups are funded by the US military. (Two of those are the biggest attractions, the Blue Angels — the Navy’s precision-flight team — and the Golden Knights — the Army’s parachute team.)

James relented under questioning, later saying that “the cost to taxpayers is negligible.” And he kept trying to steer our interview toward what he called “the important things” about the air show — such as its “family atmosphere.”

It’s that kind of cavalier attitude toward taxpayers’ money — and toward America’s military personnel — that has led the US government to spend, according to 2006 Defense Department statistics, $100,000 a minute in Iraq, and $18,000 a minute in Afghanistan. Maine Veterans for Peace members and supporters will be protesting the military’s appetite for money and bodies when they march from downtown Brunswick to the air station starting at 9 am on Saturday.

In case you care about your tax dollars more than the feds do, here’s what you’re buying.

BLUE ANGELS $276 million for 13 airplanes; $5.6 million in annual salaries for 114 personnel.

GOLDEN KNIGHTS $4 million for two airplanes, undisclosed lease payments for two more; $5.1 million in salaries for 90 soldiers.

F-15E STRIKE EAGLE DEMO TEAM One $31 million airplane; $630,000 a year to pay 13 crew members.

US AIR FORCE HERITAGE FLIGHT Older Air Force planes originally purchased for purposes other than air-show performances, with a group of pilots, most of whom are former military personnel; plus the Air Combat Command’s demonstration team, with a $9.8 million airplane and $360,000 in annual payroll for the eight crew members.

MAJOR JOHN KLATT His custom-built Staudacher S-300D airplane (custom-painted with the graphics of the Air National Guard’s “Guarding America, Defending Freedom” aerobatic team) is hard to price; so is the contract he has for his services and those of his three-man team. But his rank and years of service mean his annual Air Guard salary is around $75,000.

Those numbers don’t include the 20 or more military aircraft on display on the ground, training all the people to fly or do their flying-related jobs, or the salaries and budgets of the military recruiters whose efforts these events are intended to support.

The air show does get some financial help from people who attend — who pay reserved-seating fees and buy food, drinks, and souvenirs — and the companies who hawk that stuff, who pay for the privilege. Some of that money goes to pay aerial performers, though not nearly enough to offset their actual costs; rather, James says, it mainly covers food, lodging, and local transport.

What about jet fuel? James says civilian performers buy their own, using some of the money they are paid for performing, but he didn’t know whether the fees paid to military groups are used to reimburse the Defense Department (er, that’s you and me) for the fuel used in the military aircraft.

Related links: