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Newsmakers: Thunderbirds, Blue Angels make headlines in 2016

TRAVERSE CITY — It was a turbulent year for military flight demonstration squadrons.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds — two crowd favorites and staples at Traverse City’s National Cherry Festival — both experienced crashes during public appearances in other cities in June this year.

One claimed the life of the Blue Angels’ No. 6 pilot Marine Corps Capt. Jeff Kuss, whose F/A-18 Hornet crashed during an airshow practice in Smyrna, Tennessee on June 2. The Blue Angels were grounded for nearly a month following the crash, but five pilots returned to the skies ahead of the Fourth of July holiday and the National Cherry Festival.

“We were honored they did decide to fly for our show this last year in 2016,” said Kat Paye, executive director of the cherry festival. “We were very excited to get the phone call they were going to fly and humbled they were flying at our show. We had the deepest condolences for the group.”

U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilot Maj. Alex Turner safely ejected from the fighter jet as it was crashing into a field in Colorado moments after performing a fly-over as President Barack Obama addressed cadets at an Air Force commencement ceremony, also on June 2. Turner was unharmed and maneuvered the plane so it would not crash into a residential neighborhood.

The Thunderbirds performed at the National Cherry Festival in 2015 after a 25-year hiatus and the group will bring their thunder again to the 2017 event. Typically, flight demo squads send a jet with a few pilots up to Traverse City for a preseason visit, but the Thunderbirds were confident in the festival’s planning enough to skip the visit this year, Paye said.

“They said we did such a great job they didn’t feel they needed to come for a preseason visit,” she said. “That was nice to hear — we miss seeing them but we’re excited to hear they had such faith in us.”

The festival’s volunteer airshow committee works each year to try to schedule either of the flight teams, she said.

“It isn’t a guarantee, we don’t always know right away, so it’s always exciting for us to announce they’re coming,” she said.

An estimated 500,000 people gather at along the Grand Traverse Bay to watch the spectacle, but, not everyone welcomes the metal-winged birds to the region.

“I don’t think the war machines have any place in our mellow city,” said Tim Keenan, a veteran and president of the group Veterans for Peace Chapter 50, of the military demos. “They remind me of war personally. I don’t think they’re entertainment.

“It makes me sad — it’s all about peace and they’re not peaceful.”

Keenan acknowledges many people enjoy the airshows — particularly the military fighter jets — but he said he won’t give up going door-to-door for signatures to present in meetings to the city or to air his opinions to festival officials to ditch the shows.

“They’re probably not going away, but that doesn’t mean I like it,” he said. “I’ll go camping in the woods where I can’t hear them.”

Paye said the festival will continue to hear input from the community, including thoughts from those that don’t like the airshows.

“It’s a community-wide event and I love it, but not everyone loves all of our events, but I think there’s something for everyone,” she said. “We’re not going to appease everyone but we do try to listen at least and let people’s voices be heard.”

Fat Albert, the Blue Angels’ C-130 support plane, was grounded for repairs in the fall and won’t return for the 2016 season, according to a statement from the team’s public affairs officer. It’s unclear how long the repairs will take. Cmdr. Frank Weisser, who was a Blue Angel pilot in 2008-10, rejoined the team in late summer to fill Kuss’ place.

The Thunderbirds will take flight in Traverse City on July 1 and 2 in 2017 and the Blue Angels will visit once again for shows on June 30 and July 1 in 2018.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.