The Air Force on Sept. 1 permanently shut down Tops in Blue, its six-decade-old touring performance ensemble made up of amateur airmen.
Tops in Blue has become a source of controversy in recent years, with some airmen saying it was a waste of time and money that didn't do much to entertain the rank-and-file. Some airmen claimed their commanders ordered them to attend Tops in Blue performances, a claim backed up by some disgruntled former Tops in Blue members, who also told Air Force Times they felt the show was out of date and wasted money on costumes -- enough for multiple changes -- and musical instruments that sat unplayed and uncared for in storage.
Until late 2015 -- when Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James first launched a survey to find out how airmen really felt about it and then suspended the 2016 tour -- Air Force officials maintained the band was a morale-booster and great recruiting tool, beloved by current and former airmen and their families, as well as commanders, and "represents an outstanding value to the Air Force." The comedians Sinbad and Jerry Van Dyke are perhaps Tops in Blue's most famous alums.
In an email Friday, Air Force spokeswoman Brooke Brzozowske said the decision to close down the song-and-dance troupe, which played a mixture of modern pop and rock songs and classic rock and oldies, "came after a year-long review prompted by fiscal realities and resource constraints combined with changing airman demographics."
As part of that review, a working group collected feedback from airmen and "concluded Tops in Blue is no longer aligned with the entertainment preferences of the airmen and families of the Air Force."
Word about Tops in Blue's end first leaked out on the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page, which on Wednesday posted a redacted screenshotof another Facebook page discussing its fate.
For years, canceling Tops in Blue was a frequent suggestion when airmen were asked to name ways to save money. One ex-member, former Capt. Gavin Light, filed an inspector general complaint in 2013 alleging waste, abuse and a "blatant disregard for safety" in the program. Light told Air Force Times that while the cash-strapped Air Force was cutting on-base programs that airmen actually used, such as bowling alleys and auto body shops, it had no business spending money on the band.
In 2015, the last year Tops in Blue toured, the Air Force officially budgeted more than $1.3 million for the program, including more than $1 million in morale, welfare and readiness money and $319,000 in appropriated taxpayer funds. But corporate sponsorships were declining, from roughly $170,000 in 2014 to $25,000 in 2015, forcing the Air Force to up its MWR funding of the band by nearly 13 percent.
Critics of the band also said the Air Force's official budgetary estimates didn't take into account the salaries of the band's roughly three dozen members -- who were taken out of their usual jobs for a year while they rehearsed and toured -- as well as travel costs for sending them all over the world. Those salaries cost at least another million dollars.
Former members said they often worked 18 hours a day, operating on just a few hours of sleep, which led to illnesses and injuries. A truck driver for the band told Air Force Times he was regularly told to ignore rules requiring vehicle operators to get eight hours of sleep and requirements to periodically check equipment to ensure it hadn't shifted in transit. Because of that, he said, instruments or equipment were often broken en route.
The 2013 commander-directed investigation, launched as a result of Light's complaint and obtained by Air Force Times via a Freedom of Information Act request, substantiated an unnamed female airman's allegations of sexual harassment while she was on tour in 2012.
The report, which partially substantiated some of Light's allegations, also found a technical sergeant received a severe electric shock while trying to hook up equipment to a poorly grounded temporary power board, and that Tops in Blue did not follow the rules and properly report it.
That tech sergeant also jackknifed and rolled a 7-1/2-ton tractor trailer while taking an exit ramp too fast, which resulted in the scrapping of the truck. The next day, another airman crashed another truck into a lamp post in a church parking lot, extensively damaging the truck and knocking the post over. Those accidents cost the Air Force $135,208.