They’re smaller and slower than the Blue Angels. And some Seattle residents will be glad to hear they’re not as noisy.
But most important, the Patriots Jet Team is still flying.
Military officials confirmed Tuesday that the Navy’s Blue Angels, a longtime feature of Seafair, are grounded for the year — a victim of budget woes that have prompted deep cuts in Pentagon spending.
And in another blow to Seafair planning, the Navy said Tuesday it won’t have vessels open for traditional Fleet Week public visits on the Seattle waterfront.
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The grounding of the Blue Angels heightens the profile of the all-volunteer, California-based Patriots, who will perform over Lake Washington for Seafair.
“We felt it was critical to have a performance jet team as part of our air show” in the first weekend of August, said Seafair CEO Beth Knox.
Even before the Blue Angels’ absence was official, Seafair had made arrangements to bring back the Patriots, who performed at Seafair just before the Blue Angels in 2007 and 2008.
Knox said the Patriots were a hit, not just for their flying, but for the pilots’ willingness to sign autographs and visit with the public before and after the show.
In contrast to the Boeing F/A-18 Hornets that the Blue Angels fly at up to 700 mph in shows, the Patriots fly Czech-built L-39s, topping out between 450 and 500 mph.
What those slower speeds mean at an air show is that the twists and turns can be done in less space, with the aircraft remaining in the crowd’s view, said Dean Wright, the Patriots’ lead pilot.
“Seattle is a great venue for us,” Wright said. “The crowd is electric. It was too good to pass up.”
Mike Bush, spokesman for the Museum of Flight, said even though the Patriots aren’t performing at the speed of the Blue Angels, they are known for a variety of crowd-pleasing maneuvers, some enhanced with red, white and blue smoke.
“We’re losing the Blues, but we’re gaining a lot as well,” Bush said.
Both the Blue Angels and the Patriots Jet Team fly six jets, but there’s a difference in who’s flying them.
Blue Angels pilots are all current Navy or Marine Corps pilots with much more time to train. Until the budget trouble hit, they had been preparing for shows in 33 cities this year. Only two of those performances came before the shutdown.
In contrast, fliers for the Patriots Jet Team are volunteers — albeit highly trained ones — who find time to do perhaps 10 to 12 shows a year.
“It’s a hobby,” said Patriots pilot Rob Mitchell. “Some people go fishing. I fly jets in air shows.”
Mitchell, who lives in Vancouver, B.C., has 20 years’ experience as a Canadian Air Force pilot and two as an airline pilot. He now works as an actor and TV producer.
He’s looking forward to the Seafair show because his wife and two children will come down from Vancouver, and his father will come from Whidbey Island.
Wright said most of the Patriots pilots are former military pilots with experience flying in demonstration teams. Wright, 47, flew in the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, and is now a corporate pilot for Fry’s Electronics.
Another big difference between the Blue Angels and the Patriots is the price tag of what they’re flying. The Navy puts the price of a Hornet at $21 million, while industry sources say an Albatros can be purchased for $200,000 to $300,000.
Wright said the difference is that the Hornet was built to be a top-line combat aircraft while the Albatros is a relatively simple aircraft to be used for basic pilot training.
Those who saw the Patriots’ previous Seattle appearances may notice that the group has recently gone from four jets up to six.
The grounding of the Blue Angels doesn’t necessarily mean more dates for the Patriots. Wright said it’s impractical to take the team anywhere but West Coast locations, because of the costs involved.
There’s also the commitment of time, not just by the nonprofit organization’s pilots, but by the dozens of other people who handle the team’s planning, logistics and maintenance.
The Patriots’ fee helps cover the organization’s costs, Wright said.
Seafair spokeswoman Melissa Jurcan said Seafair expects to pay $75,000 to $100,000 for the Patriots’ appearance fee and related expenses.
When the Blue Angels perform, she said, expenses are covered by the military, except for a $12,000 administrative fee paid by Seafair, and additional local costs related to accommodating the shows.
The grounding of the Blue Angels comes as Pentagon officials look to make more than $40 billion in cuts for the current fiscal year. Published reports indicate operating the team costs the military about $40 million a year.
The Air Force had already grounded its Thunderbirds, and on Tuesday said it would ground about a third of its active-duty force.
The elimination of the Navy’s ship visits impacts what has been a core Seafair emphasis. Navy regional spokesman Sean Hughes said two or three ships usually are brought to the Seattle waterfront for tours during Seafair. The ships that would have participated this year had not yet been selected.
Hughes said Navy officials hope the visits can be restored next year.
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