No air rodeo at JBLM this year, due to budget

Staff writerMarch 14, 2013 

The Pentagon is canceling a well-loved international Air Force competition at Joint Base Lewis-McChord this summer, grounding the air mobility “rodeo” to save money.

About 20 air crews from a dozen nations were scheduled to visit McChord Air Field this July. In recent years, teams from as far as Germany, Israel and Pakistan flew in to practice with local airmen who operate C-17 cargo jets.

Air Mobility Command commander Gen. Paul Selva cited budget uncertainty at the Pentagon in describing his decision to cancel the rodeo. The Defense Department is carrying out $50 billion in forced budget cuts this year because of Congress’ failure to avert the so-called sequester.

“We’ll get back to holding rodeos as soon as we can,” Selva said.

It’s not a surprise that the Air Force is pulling back on the every-other-year event. It announced last month that its famous Thunderbirds demonstration team would not participate in air shows this year. They visited Lewis-McChord for an air show last summer that drew more than 150,000 spectators.

Rodeos have been canceled in the past because of wartime needs after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and because of budget shortfalls in 1988.

The rodeo is less visible to the public than the air show – the two events alternate years at McChord – but airmen eagerly anticipate the rodeo. It gives them a chance to meet peers from around the world as they demonstrate skills in air drops and timed tests.

Lt. Col. Patrick Kearney of McChord’s 446th Reserve Air Lift Wing remembers learning from air mobility rodeos in the 1980s. Those competitions shaped his career as a navigator, he said. He went on to win rodeo contests in subsequent years.

“When it’s done, you’re exhausted,” he said. “Everybody who comes – even if you lose – you go away with a great experience.”

Kearney has had a hand in planning recent rodeo competitions at McChord. He fondly remembers the 2005 event that brought Pakistan for the first time. Its crew arrived with a “beat-up” C-130 that required work to keep in the air.

“Everybody pitched in to make sure that aircraft was flyable,” he said.

The Pakistani crews learned much from their international peers and put the experience to work that year delivering emergency supplies to victims of a devastating earthquake in their country, Kearney said.

Participating crews gather at night in a “tent city” at McChord where they play games and relax together.

No matter what flag they fly under, “air crews are air crews, and they have an affinity for each other,” Kearney said.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, called the decision to cancel the rodeo an “example of how the fiscal uncertainty and across-the-board cuts of sequestration are negatively impacting Washington state.”

“It’s very disappointing that this training event has been canceled, but I understand the decision since mission-essential requirements are prioritized over events like these,” said Smith, formerly of Tacoma and the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@

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