An Annapolis tradition, grounded

Thanks to sequestration, the Blue Angels will not fly over the Naval Academy this commencement; Congress should be ashamed

May 13, 2013|Susan Reimer

My town, Annapolis, is a special kind of college town.

The students at the Naval Academy are distinctive not for their backpacks, ear buds and school T-shirts, but for their crisp summer whites and their somber dress blues.

The midshipmen take off their hats — their covers — when they enter a building, and they say "sir" and "ma'am" when you greet them. At this college, you don't pay anything unless you quit or get kicked out.

About 1,400 arrive every July, but only about 800 will graduate four years later. The ceremonies last a week, and it is a week filled with traditions that are decades (if not centuries) old.

They graduates walk across the stage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and accept their diplomas from the president or the vice president — it is President Barack Obama's turn this year — and they wear not gowns and mortarboards but the uniforms of the officers they have become. And as the commencement ceremony gets under way, the Blue Angels roar above the stadium in formation.

But not this year.

The Blue Angels have performed during commissioning week and then saluted the graduates just about every year since 1954, but they haven't done a full-scale performance in Annapolis since 2010.

They didn't perform in 2011 because a dangerous maneuver had nearly gone wrong at an air show, and the pilots refocused on training. They did a flyover in 2012 but not a full performance because the date of graduation had been changed and there was a scheduling conflict. (The Blue Angels perform at air shows all over the country, and they are booked solid every year.)

They aren't coming this year because of sequestration. Indeed, they aren't flying anywhere. Sequestration budget cuts have reduced their training to about 11 hours a month. Normally they train about seven hours every week, flying as many as nine times in seven days.

It isn't safe for them to perform their seemingly impossible maneuvers — upside-down, cockpit bubble to cockpit bubble or 18 inches between wing tips — on 11 hours a month. Somebody could get killed.

The arrival of the Blue Angels in Annapolis every May has always been a party. Parents keep their kids home from school, boat owners crowd the Severn River. Everybody has their favorite spot from which to watch these fabulous jets. If you watch from inside the Naval Academy gates, you can hear the pilots talk to each other through giant speakers on the ground.

There is grumbling about the Blue Angels, too.

The Naval Academy schedules a fly-over of some kind for every football game, weather permitting. And then the pilots race by land to enter the stadium, where they are introduced to the fans during the third quarter.

I have friends who think this is all a waste of fuel, if not taxpayer dollars, and they consider it an unseemly display of machismo — some of the toughest, angriest-looking helicopters and planes fly over the stadium on game days.

Whatever the excesses of these displays, they have never bothered me. I get a kind of Top Gun thrill when I hear the engines rumble up over the trees near my house; I am just blocks from the stadium.

One May day, years ago now, a little towheaded boy stood on my deck and waved. And the pilot waved back. Perhaps it was then that the Naval Academy seed was planted in him — and the Blue Angels saluted his graduation years later.

The young men and women who look up to see the underbellies of the Blue Angels on graduation day, their diplomas under their arms and their hats flying into the air, are not going off to Wall Street. Many will go to war. And I know too many who have not returned.

What would you have us do to honor their achievement, their sacrifice, I ask those who think this show is a waste — hire a clown?

The sequester was given as the reason that White House tours were canceled, and it was given as the reason the Blue Angels will not come to Annapolis again this year. We all know the truth of it. This public penny-pinching is supposed to move us to urge our leaders to solve their budget disagreements.

Hire a clown? Indeed. There are plenty to choose from in Washington. How they dishonor the young people who will now go out to defend them.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information. The Blue Angels traditionally fly at the beginning, not the end, of the Naval Academy's commencement ceremony, and Commissioning Week activities begin with an awards ceremony, not a church service. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

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