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Federal budget cuts ground Utah squadron and end Blue Angels' season

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The U.S. Air Force plans to ground one-third of its active-duty force of combat planes, including at least one squadron at Hill Air Force Base because of automatic federal budget cuts.

The cutbacks are also ending the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels aerobatic team’s season.

The Air Force didn't immediately release a list of the specific units and bases that would be affected, but it said Tuesday it would cover some fighters and some airborne warning and control aircraft in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific.

Col. Scott Long, 388th Fighter Wing commander, said he wasn't overly shocked when he got the official word the 4th Squadron, which is currently deployed to the Asia-Pacific since October 2012, will fly basic missions until returning from deployment. Then it will stand down through September.

"It's tough," Long said. "We have a very excellent mission that we have here in the wing, and when you hear that you're not going to be able to execute that mission as you have before, it can be a bummer."

The squadron, which has approximately 29 pilots, is expected to be back from its mission in a week or two.

During the reduced flying hours, aircrew and maintainers will use flight simulators and academic training to maintain basic skills and knowledge of their aircraft.

"It's a hard blow to take because we all serve and signed up to serve our country," said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Batzer, 388th Fighter Wing chief.

Although the stand-down will have a significant impact, readiness will remain a priority.

“Our mission is to remain combat-ready, and we will continue to focus on this and work together to answer our nation’s call when called upon,” said wing spokeswoman Andrea Mason.

The 421st Fighter Squadron will fly basic missions through September.

Only the units preparing to deploy to major operations, such as the war in Afghanistan, will remain mission-ready. Other units will stand down on a rotating basis, said Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.

"Even a six-month stand-down of units will have significant long-term, multiyear impacts on our operational readiness," Air Combat Command spokesman Maj. Brandon Lingle wrote in an email to the Associated Press.

The Department of Defense overall faces a $487 billion reduction in projected spending over the next decade and possibly tens of billions more as tea partyers and other fiscal conservatives embrace automatic spending cuts as the best means to reduce the government's trillion-dollar deficit.

On Tuesday, the Navy confirmed that the Blue Angels aerobatic team would be canceling the rest of its season.

Tom Frosch, the Blue Angels' lead pilot and team commander, announced the news late Tuesday at the team's Pensacola Naval Air Station headquarters while standing in front of the one of the iconic blue-and-gold jets.

Frosch said the news marks the first time since the Korean War that the team would not make the air show rounds.

"The Navy held off as long as possible with the hope of salvaging some of the season," he said. "We hope we'll be turned back on for 2014."

Marc Mortensen, assistant to the St. George city manager, said he doesn’t know if the Blue Angels will come back to his city. Last year was the first time the team was in St. George. "Thunder over Utah" was a big success, Mortensen said, as tens of thousands of people attended.

The city always intended to do the air show about every other year, but at this point, Mortensen said he doesn't know if it will happen. Right now, he said, the city is in no position to fund the show itself.

“I’m not sure where we’ll be in 2014,” Mortensen said. “We are still hoping that we can do such a show, whether or not that’s funded privately or funded like it has been through the federal government, or the option is also there to just cancel the show all together.”

Contributing: Associated Press