Navy airshow axed

The popular airshow Thunder on the Rock will not be returning to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station next year as was planned.

The airshow was held last year after a four-year hiatus, but now it has fallen victim to tight budgets and more disciplined business practices, according to the base business plan released last week.

The 2003 airshow filled the sky over Whidbey with demonstration flights by the Air Force Thunderbird 8F-16s, an F-117 flyby and an aerobatic performance by Kent Pietsch, as well as displays of vintage military aircraft. The events draws thousands of spectators from throughout the region.

“We’re disappointed we can’t do it again,” Commanding Officer Capt. Steve Black said. “2002 was a lot of fun.”

The airshow was also costly, with Air Operations and Pubic Works budgets footing most of the $150,000 bill.

Black stressed the Navy is not short of funds; the decision to cancel the air show has more to do with the Navy’s new focus for financial resources than it does the lack of resources.

Navy installations nation-wide are “transforming” themselves, and adopting “more disciplined business practices in shore installation management,” Black said.

Also playing a part in the cancellation was the Fleet Readiness Plan, which requires battle groups, ships and squadrons to be ready for deployment at all times, Black said. Finances will be focused on that goal.

Thunder on the Rock was a popular event with locals and visitors. How its cancellation will affect the island’s economy remains to be seen.

Close to 75,000 people attended last year’s show, filling area hotels and restaurants.

Priscilla Heistad, executive director of Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Friday the town will likely feel the effect of the airshow’s absence, but it’s hard to tell how much.

“We’re disappointed,” she said, “but we understand the mission of the Navy and the issues they’re facing.”

She said typically lodgings in the area are full in mid-August anyway, so it probably won’t take away from businesses substantially.

“Businesses are not counting on revenue that is not going to be there,” she said.

When or if the air show will return is still up in the air, but Black is hopeful.

“We’re not done on Whidbey, just not in ‘04,” Black said. “We’ll bring the thunder back to the rock.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynews or call 675-6611

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