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Naval Academy graduation has to do without the Blue Angels

Restaurant and Catering IndustryDining and DrinkingUnited States Naval AcademyU.S. NavyKorean War (1950-1953)

He saw his first Blue Angels show in Detroit at age 6, and Thomas Frosch says the experience inspired him to want to become a pilot. He saw four more performances while attending the Naval Academy, including one the "Blues" put on before his graduation in 1992.

Now commander and flight leader of the Blue Angels, Frosch, a Navy commander, was looking forward to returning to Annapolis this week, where he would have led his team through its traditional jaw-dropping show as part of the Academy's graduation week.

But with commencement looming Friday, he's just one of many feeling disappointed — the Navy has grounded the Blue Angels for the rest of 2013 as part of the federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

For Annapolis business owners, the cancellation will mean fewer diners in restaurants and fewer customers on cruise boats. For residents, it means losing a spectacular centerpiece for picnics and parties.

"Every performance is significant, but that one has a special place in my heart," Frosch says. "The Annapolis [cancellation] is a real letdown for the graduates, the midshipmen, the parents and everyone else in that area who loves being inspired by aviation."

The move, which will cut $28 million from the defense budget, also eliminates the Angels' first-ever performances at the Ocean City Air Show, which were scheduled for June 8 and 9.

Announced by Frosch April 9, the Navy's decision marks the first time the Blue Angels — formally known as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Flight Demonstration Team — have been grounded since the Korean War.

The move eliminated 35 scheduled performances, including the team's just-about-annual show above the Severn River and environs during Commissioning Week, the seven days of pomp and circumstance that lead to graduation. The commencement itself traditionally gets a flyover as well.

It also dashed the hopes of the many who expected the Angels to return this year after two-year absence. The "Blues" missed their Annapolis gigs in 2011 due to a flight-safety concern and 2012 due to a scheduling conflict.

Tens of thousands normally pack downtown on the midweek show day to find good viewing positions on boats, on rooftops, on hillsides and anywhere else they can spread out a blanket. The shows have been a community tradition since the squad first came to town in 1954.

"It's part of growing up in Annapolis: you learn to fish, you learn to sail, and you watch the Blue Angels twice a year," says Sean O'Neill, a financial analyst who lives in town. "You heard those jets go overhead and you knew spring was turning to summer and a whole new season was under way."

Longtime resident Jeff Holland said the cancellation "isn't just a nostalgic disappointment; it's an economic blow."

Holland, a museum director and member of the Main Streets Annapolis Partnership, said he felt badly for the business owners, restaurant employees, marina workers and others who will lose money "because of this stupid situation."

Founded in 1946 as a way of boosting Navy morale and drawing public attention to Naval aviation, the Blue Angels flight team thrilled onlookers across the nation by performing low-altitude maneuvers in tight formations.

The Navy disbanded the team in 1950 because it needed its pilots and aircraft for the Korean War, but recommissioned the unit in late 1951.

Three years later, the "Blues" made their first appearance over Annapolis, and they've been back to perform a show during Commissioning Week and fly over graduation nearly every year since.

Over the decades, Annapolitans came to see the midweek show as an undeclared holiday.

Restaurants overflowed with customers. Boaters clogged the waterways, kids skipped school, caterers fed party-goers and marina workers pumped gas.

It's "wall-to-wall traffic" when the show happens, says Dick Franyo, owner of the Boatyard Bar & Grill in Eastport, which offers a close-up view as the Angels' F/A-18 Hornets do their 40 minutes' worth of barrel rolls, diamond formations and fall-away drops.

"It's deafening, and everybody is everywhere," he says.

Commissioning Week started last Friday, so Annapolis is already overflowing with visitors. But the boost the Angels provide will be missing.

"Call it the sequester echo," Franyo says.

At Cantler's Riverside Inn on Mill Creek, general manager Dan Donnelly says the restaurant doesn't offer the best view of the shows, but Blue Angels day always means a huge spike in business afterward.

The cancellation will be a blow.

"If the [Angels] fly, we have more servers on, more cooks, more staff. Everyone gets more hours. My waitresses love that day. We'll take a hit financially," he says.

Debbie Gosselin, owner of Watermark Cruises in Annapolis, says each of the company's 13 vessels was fully booked for its Blue Angels cruises on Wednesday, when the show was to take place.

Only two remain booked, a loss of about 1,700 customers.

"I don't know how much we'll lose. I told myself I wasn't going to count it up this year," she says.

O'Neill, who doubles as president of the Annapolis Business Association, says it will be hard to quantify the monetary loss this week, but it will be significant.

"It will definitely have an impact on the local economy," he says.

During what would have been the Blue Angels time slot Wednesday, the Naval Academy will host an afternoon of live concerts, but that won't forestall the sense of emotional letdown.

Just ask Chris Peterson.

Peterson, the president of St. John's College, and his wife, Joyce Olin, have hosted a Blue Angels party for most of the past seven years.

Their home on the Severn River offers a clear view of the show, he says. Guests spread blankets on the lawn as loudspeakers play the radio announcements from the Academy and children gaze up with their mouths agape.

The Angels' cancellation was "a reasonable judgment in the face of the sequester," he says, but he can't help feeling the disappointment at missing an event he calls "an awe-inspiring sight for all and a source of pride in our Navy."

They'll host a picnic this year, but it won't have the same impact.

"We'll watch the ducks, ospreys and Great Blue [herons] instead," he says.

Across the Bay, organizers of the Ocean City Air Show say they're disappointed — they've been courting the Blue Angels for years, and the team was to appear in the show for the first time — but the loss will be more emotional than financial.

Bryan Lilley, president of the OC Air Show, says he has replaced the Angels with an "all-star, all-civilian lineup" including the nation's only civilian-owned Sea Harrier — a jet known for its vertical takeoffs and landings — and helicopter stunt pilot Chuck Aaron, who will perform rolls, backflips and stalls.

"We've been looking forward to the 'Blues' since we booked them, but flight fans will not be disappointed," he says.

The Blue Angels haven't been wasting their time. The seven-jet team continues to practice near its home base in Pensacola, Fla., preparing for a 2014 season it hopes will proceed as scheduled, and the fliers have made more community appearances than usual.

Frosch says if the grounding means America's fighting men and women overseas will be better equipped and trained, he's fine with sitting out a year.

But he remembers how the Angels thrilled him as a boy, then as a student at the academy, giving him a sense of what heights he, too, could climb.

"A lot of folks refer to the Blues as a national treasure," the lead pilot says, "and I certainly know what they mean. I'm sorry we won't be in Annapolis this year."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

An earlier version of this story stated an incorrect rank for U.S. Navy Commander Thomas Frosch. It has been corrected here.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Restaurant and Catering IndustryDining and DrinkingUnited States Naval AcademyU.S. NavyKorean War (1950-1953)
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