Thunderbirds, Blue Angels Team Up for Dramatic Salute to Coronavirus Responders

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The Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds Delta flies over the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds Delta flies over the Golden Gate Bridge, Sept. 24, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Ashley Corkins)

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels demonstration teams are set to fly over multiple cities as a show of solidarity for health care workers on the frontlines of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the "air shows" -- part of Operation America Strong -- are meant to pay tribute to the medical communities "confronting COVID."

"And it's really a signal to all Americans to remain vigilant during the outbreak," Trump said during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House.

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"America Strong is a collaborative salute from the Navy and Air Force to recognize health care workers, first responders, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

The series of flyovers will take place over the next few weeks, Stefanek said in an email to Military.com.

Prior to Trump's announcement, The Washington Post reported that there would be flights, but not formal air shows -- which often involve sharp, somersault-like maneuvers for viewers below.

Senior defense officials told the newspaper that the plans were conceived by military officers in the Pentagon as a nonpartisan way to say "thank you" to the men and women "who are pitching in."

The cost of the flights will come from money already in the Pentagon budget, the senior defense officials said.

The teams have cut their air show schedules short amid the pandemic, leaving their return dates open-ended. With air shows cut, it's hard for pilots to get needed flying hours, which could lead to lapses in their certifications.

The Air Force Thunderbirds performed two recent flyovers: Last weekend, the team, which flies F-16 Fighting Falcons, flew over hospitals, medical facilities and major metropolitan areas in Colorado. The team, which is headquartered at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, first flew a salute to first responders in Las Vegas on April 11.

But the flights have not been without scrutiny. People took to social media to question the flight costs amid the pandemic, with many businesses shuttered and millions of people out of work.

According to fiscal 2017 data, it costs $20,423 per hour to fly an F-16.

Responding to criticisms after the Las Vegas flight, former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson stressed the necessity of continued training.

"[They] have to train whether Air Shows are canceled or not," Wilson tweeted. The flights are also a recruiting tool, with "20% of leads for enlisting in the Air Force com[ing] from Air Shows," she added.

Earlier this week, the Blue Angels, flying F/A-18 Hornets, and the Thunderbirds were spotted flying together over Pensacola Beach in Florida, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The Blue Angels are stationed at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

The Post, citing a Defense Department memo, said that the two teams will jointly fly over Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; New York City; Newark and Trenton, New Jersey; Philadelphia; Atlanta; and Dallas, Houston and Austin in Texas.

The Thunderbirds will separately fly over San Antonio; Oklahoma City; Phoenix; San Diego; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle. The Blue Angels will fly by Miami, Tampa, Tallahassee and Jacksonville in Florida, and Norfolk and Virginia Beach in Virginia. Additional destinations include Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, and Kingsville and Corpus Christi in Texas, according to the Post.

"In order to reach the maximum number of Americans, some portions of America Strong will feature only the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds, while others will include both teams flying in their signature Delta formations simultaneously," Stefanek said. "The flyovers are intended to be viewed from home, work and via media coverage while maintaining social distancing and will not take place as traditional air shows. More information on timing and locations will be announced soon."

According to Trump, "Operation America Strong was the idea of our great military men and women -- the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels crews who wanted to show support to the American medical workers who, just like military members in a time of war, are fiercely running toward the fight."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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