The wild, blue yonder over Allegheny County won't seem as wild this summer -- and maybe just a little bit bluer -- after yesterday's cancellation of the popular Wings Over Pittsburgh air show.
"It breaks my heart," said Col. Gordon H. Elwell Jr., commander of the 911th Airlift Wing, which hosts the annual event at the U.S. Air Force Reserve Base in Moon. "It was an extremely difficult decision that was not easily made. But as the military commander, I have to weigh my resources against the military mission."
Wings Over Pittsburgh, which annually draws crowds of 250,000 or more, is one of the top air shows in the country, featuring military aircraft exhibitions and aerobatic teams. The free event gives spectators the chance to see everything that flies, from biplanes and hang-gliders to stealth fighters and B-2 bombers. History goes on display right next to the latest in military air technology.
The event began in 1999 when Col. F. Baxter Lane, the airlift commander at the time, held a modest open house so the community could see the importance of the base. The next year it was labeled Wings Over Pittsburgh, and it has been held every summer except 2003, when it was canceled because of the war in Iraq.
This year's show, which had been scheduled for the weekend of June 20-21, fell victim to the airlift's Operational Readiness Inspection, a five-year cycle of military training that will tap the unit's manpower and limited resources.
"We have some very specific combat training that we have to do," Col. Elwell said. "We simply can't get that training done and have the air show."
"The training is geared toward war-fighting skills, use of weapons, use of gear. It's all mission-critical stuff," said airlift spokesman Lt. Shawn M. Walleck. "When headquarters is looking at the big board, they have to rack and stack those things in terms of mission priority. Well, the air show didn't reach the level for funding."
Col. Elwell said he announced the decision as soon as he could in order to enable vendors, exhibitors and performers time to sign on to other events.
"There are hundreds [of air shows] across the country, but very few of our magnitude," he said. "We're in the top 10 in terms of size and popularity."
Wings Over Pittsburgh costs the airlift about $150,000 in operations and maintenance funding, Col. Elwell said. Then there is the cost of the manpower. With today's economy, he said, the air show wasn't feasible.
"And that's just one event we've had to cancel," he said. The unit also has had to drop out of its scheduled participation in the 65th anniversary airdrop this summer in Normandy, France.
The air show, which takes almost a year to put together, had been a local fixture in June or July until last year, when it was moved to mid-May in order to get the Canadian Snowbirds to perform. The first day of the show had a very strong turnout, but the weather turned on the second day and events had to be canceled.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who has attended the show every year and served as honorary co-chair of the event, lamented the loss, but hailed the likelihood that the show would return in 2010.
"It's such a great event for the area, so I was very disappointed to hear that it's been canceled for this year," he said. "But I recognize that the reserve base has cutbacks that they have to deal with, and obviously the first priority is training of their mission. Hopefully it will be back next year, bigger and better."
Dan Majors can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1456.