Five F/A-18 jets filled the air with smoke and a deafening engine roar that nearly drowned out the excited screams of children on Wednesday during a special Blue Angels fighter jet flyby over Valley Children's Hospital in Madera County.
While the crowd of around 200 was mostly hospital personnel and family members, children of all ages appeared to revel in the change of scenery and pace.
Few had a better seat than 6-year-old Violet Rubi, a chronic lung disease patient. Her round, bespectacled face appeared frozen in a smile as she chatted with her fellow patients while riding in a plastic red wagon. A stuffed dog and two dolls -- each clad in cloth diapers -- shared her chariot. At one point, the stuffed tiger sitting tightly in her grasp roared -- with considerable assistance from Violet -- at George, Valley Children's 7-foot-tall giraffe mascot.
"This has been her most exciting day in the hospital," said Violet's mother, Mary Moran. The small girl has been in and out of Valley Children's most of her young life.
The U.S. Navy's flight demonstration squadron made the special detour in part because of its commander, who has volunteered often at the hospital ever since Valley Children's doctors saved his daughter in 2012. The jets were on their way to Lancaster, where they will perform in an air show -- the kickoff to the Blue Angels' 70th annual tour.
Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi flew in the lead jet in the five-plane formation. He recently contacted Dr. Robert Kezirian, the emergency medicine physician who treated his daughter, to let the hospital know about the impromptu visit.
Bernacchi, previously stationed at Lemoore Naval Air Station, had been bringing his fellow pilots and Navy sailors to the hospital during their off time to volunteer at patients' bedsides until he was reassigned to the Blue Angels. His efforts were possibly inspired by Kezirian, who remembered a conversation he had with the Navy commander about four years ago.
"He asked me what he could do to repay me (after his daughter's treatment)," Kezirian said. "I told him you pay it forward -- you don't pay it back."
Ricardo Galvin, 9, seemed unimpressed shortly after the flyby. The boy sported a hospital gown and a massive stitched-up gash on the right side of his face -- the results of a fall while playing.
"It was a little exciting, but I had more fun playing golf," he said, pointing to the playground's putting green. "I've never done that before."
Jordan Sandoval, a 16-year-old cystic fibrosis patient, watched the flyby from a wheelchair guided by his father, Rick. As one of the hospital's older chronic patients, he seemed to understand the significance of the flyby.
"It's fun to come out and see something new," he said. "And I think it helps the other kids forget they're in the hospital."