The Pentagon is cancelling a well-loved 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 for the competition. Two years ago, teams came from as far away as Pakistan to practice with local airmen.
Air Mobility Command commander Gen. Paul Silva cited the budget uncertainty in 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.”
“It is very unfortunate we have to cancel. This is an important and uniquely useful event for mobility air forces and our international partners. We’ll get back to holding rodeo as soon as we can,” Selva said.
It’s not a surprise that the Air Force is pulling back on the 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 attendees.
Rodeos have been cancelled in the past because of wartime needs at the start of the Iraq War, and because of budget shortfalls in 1988.
The rodeo is less visible to the public than McChord’s biannual air show, but it’s an event airmen look forward to because it gives them an opportunity to meet their peers from around the world as they demonstrate their skills in air drops and timed tests.
Lt. Col. Patrick Kearney of McChord’s 446th Reserve Air Lift Wing, for instance, remembers learning from air mobility rodeos in the 1980s. Those competitions shaped his career as a navigator. 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.”
He more recently took a hand in planning rodeo competitions at McChord. He fondly remembers the 2005 rodeo that brought Pakistan for the first time. Its crew arrived with a “beat-up” C-130 that took work to keep in the air.
“Everybody pitched in to make sure that aircraft was flyable,” he said.
The Pakistan crews learned a great deal from their international peers and put the experience to work that year in delivering emergency supplies to a victims of a devastating earthquake in their country, Kearney said.
The contest unfolds in the daytime while crews gather at night in a “tent city” where they play games and relax together. That downtime represents another opportunity for them to learn from each other.
“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.”
“Is very disappointing that this training event has been cancelled, but I understand the decision since mission-essential requirements are prioritized over events like these,” said Smith, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.