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July 30, 2014

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US Air Force combat aircraft, Thunderbirds no longer grounded

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Steve Marcus

Members of the Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, train at Nellis Air Force Base Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.

Updated Monday, July 15, 2013 | 9:37 a.m.

Thunderbirds

F-16 jets from the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds perform during their annual approval show Thursday at Nellis Air Force Base. Launch slideshow »

NORFOLK, Va. — Grounded since April because of budget cuts, many of the Air Force's combat aircraft started flying again Monday, the military has announced.

The grounding affected about one-third of active-duty combat craft, including squadrons of fighters, bombers, and airborne warning and control craft.

Officials at Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia said the order affects planes in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific. The popular Thunderbirds demonstration team, headquartered at Nellis Air Force Base, also will start flying again.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the Thunderbirds would participate in any of the air shows it was previously scheduled to perform at before its season was canceled. Between Monday and Oct. 1, the team had been scheduled to perform in Cheyenne, Wyo.; Oshkosh, Wis.; Burlington, Vt.; and Milwaukee. The team had also been scheduled to perform in an overseas Pacific tour.

"Since April we've been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness," Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, said in a statement. "Returning to flying is an important first step but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery."

The Air Force has said it generally takes 60 to 90 days to conduct the training needed to return aircrews to mission-ready status. For the past several months, many pilots have been using simulators to try to keep their skills sharp.

The ability to get its planes airborne again comes after the Defense Department was authorized by Congress to shift about $7.5 billion from lower priority accounts to more vital operations. The Air Force said the restored flying hours represent about $208 million of that allocation authorized by Congress.

The restoration of flying hours will last through Oct. 1, when the new federal budget year begins.

"This decision gets us through the next several months but not the next several years," Hostage said. "Budget uncertainly makes it difficult to determine whether we'll be able to sustain a fully combat-ready force."

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