An Armed Forces Salute to First Responders

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Photo by Lt. Aaron Hicks/Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron

The U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, and U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, honored frontline COVID-19 first responders and essential workers with formation flights over New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia on April 28, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Aaron Hicks/Released

Formation flying in the skies over North America is not as common as it was a few decades ago. Formations always command a sense of awe and respect as the pilots present picture-perfect symmetry and mastery of control over their aircraft. A formation flyover at a ceremony or special event carries significant solemnity and emotion that makes it very special. Military aviators from almost all nations are trained to fly in formation for numerous reasons, one being a “salute”. The US Air Force’s Thunderbirds, the US Navy’s Blue Angels and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds all fly tight formations during their aerial demonstrations, and one of their final formations before a pitch up to landing is meant a salute to the crowd.

In early 2020, all three teams were ready to embark on their yearly air show and flyover schedule when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, and these highly public shows and events were cancelled one by one. Suddenly, the teams had “the rug pulled out from underneath them” as far as their air show flight demonstrations went.

Due to the significance of the worldwide COVID-19 response by large numbers of first responders and medical professionals working to care for those sickened by the illness, a groundswell of thanks needed to be delivered to those who were working their hearts out. In hard-hit Italy, the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori flew a salute on March 14, 2020 to acknowledge the nation’s medical staffers’ efforts to stem the tide of deaths from the disease and to boost Italian morale. Since 1992 the team’s finale consists of the nine jets maneuvering to the music of Luciano Pavarotti singing Puccini’s “Nessun dorma”, and this signature formation maneuver was duplicated across the country, even over the shuttered city of Rome. Recent videos show Indian military helicopters showering flower petals over groups of medical professionals at different facilities too.

In the US, while not at all a planned exercise, the evolution of these flyovers began this spring. The unprecedented multi-team practice sessions between the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds at NAF El Centro, California had given the two teams some familiarity with each other. In the past, the teams have seldom appeared at the same events, and these joint pre-season practice sorties might have been the first of their kind in over seven decades of the U.S. flight demo teams’ history. After these practices were complete, the teams went their separate ways for the beginning of their show seasons, but almost immediately their campaigns began to crumble – at no fault of their own. By mid-April, rumors began to surface about the two teams doing more joint training at NAS Pensacola.

Airmen from the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, Thunderbirds, flew over New York City, Newark, Trenton and Philadelphia in honor of frontline COVID-19 responders and essential workers April 28, 2020. The flyovers are a part of America Strong; a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize healthcare workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Maj. Ray Geoffroy)

Soon, this DOD press release was issued on April 24, 2020:

…Joint Announcement From the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force

Ina show of national solidarity, the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, and the Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, will conduct a series of multi-city flyovers over the next two weeks.

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

“We’re excited to fly over cities across America as our way of saying thanks to the healthcare workers, first responders, and all the people who selflessly run into the breach working to keep America strong,” said Gen. Dave Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations. “This is also our way of showing that we are all in this together and that America’s spirit will prevail.”

The two demonstration teams will fly over areas of the country hardest hit by COVID-19, starting next week as both joint and individual team flights occurring every one-to-two days until mid-May.

The Air Force and Navy have partnered with local governments and media outlets to help ensure spectators follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines. Both teams are also implementing various measures to maintain personnel and community safety. This includes air-to-air refueling during transit and no scheduled stops en route to reduce potential exposure to the virus.

The Blue Angels, based at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, and Thunderbirds, based at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, typically fly at more than 30 air shows each year to demonstrate American military aviation. This year, both teams have been forced to cancel many performances in response to Department of Defense direction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak.

While America Strong will showcase Department of Defense support to healthcare workers, first responders, military, essential employees, and aims to unite all Americans in the fight against COVID-19, it also fulfills critical training requirements for both teams. Pilots must execute a minimum number of flight hours to maintain proficiency. These flyovers will incur no additional cost to taxpayers.

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.

Mike Colaner captured the spirit during a Blue Angels and Thunderbirds dual team flyover near Philadelphia.

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over New York City, New York, April 28, 2020. The flyover was part of America Strong; a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize healthcare workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush)

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over New York City, New York, April 28, 2020. The flyover was part of America Strong; a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize healthcare workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush)

The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds practiced together in Pensacola, Florida for close to a week. After a multi-day weather postponement, seventeen jets set out for an epic formation flight over the cities of New York and Philadelphia. This long distance flight was aided by air refueling from a quartet of KC-10A Extenders based at Joint Base McGuire/Dix/Lakehurst, and was actually an extended training flight by the teams, but in many other senses, it was one of the most important missions the teams could fly, given the morale boost it gave beleaguered medical staffs in the two cities.

An F/A-18 Hornet assigned to the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron “Blue Angels” approaches a KC-10 Extender assigned to the 305th Air Mobility Squadron from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., April 28, 2020. The Blue Angels conducted a joint flyover with the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” as part of #AmericaStrong, an effort to honor healthcare workers, first responders and other essential personnel who are working on the front lines to combat COVID-19. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Carter)

The Blue Angels normally fly with six single seat F/A-18Cs, plus their pair of F/A-18D twin seaters. The Thunderbirds are similarly equipped with F-16C and F-16D models, and an extra F-16D in standard gray military colors has accompanied the team(s) during many of their trips. A series of KC-10A Extender flights have joined the teams for air to air refueling operations, as intermediate landings are kept to a minimum.

RCAF Snowbirds 50th Anniversary artwork – Crown Copyright

In Canada, the RCAF Snowbirds had begun their pre-season training, but ceased the process before finishing it in mid-March out of concern of containing the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada. This year will be the 50th anniversary season as a team! On April 29th, the Department of National Defense and Canadian Armed Forces released this message:

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds will cross the country to salute Canadians doing their part to fight the spread of COVID-19. This unique mission is being aptly dubbed Operation Inspiration.

The team’s signature nine-jet formation, with trailing white smoke, will fly over cities across the country starting in Nova Scotia this weekend and working west throughout the week. The team will release anticipated locations, routes, and times on their social media platforms each day. Flyovers will occur at an elevation no lower than 500 feet above all obstacles.

“Every year, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds travel the country putting smiles on the faces of Canadians,” said Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, Commander Royal Canadian Air Force. “While Canadians may not be able to gather at air shows for now, we’re honoured to bring the Snowbirds team to Canadians and to pay special tribute to them.”

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds paused operations on March 20, 2020, to preserve the team’s health. The members have been at home physically distancing since that time. The team will spend two days at their home base of 15 Wing Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan flying refresher and proficiency training missions, which is standard Royal Canadian Air Force practice after an extended pause from flying operations, before starting their cross-Canada tour, during which they will be practising recommended hand-washing and wearing recommended personal protective equipment while travelling. Team members will also be minimizing any interactions with people outside of the team.

“We’ve been asked to do what we do best… inspire Canadians,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Mike French, Commanding Officer, Canadian Forces Snowbirds. “Through Operation INSPIRATION, we not only want to salute the front-line health-care workers, first responders, and essential workers, but also all Canadians doing their part to stop the spread of COVID-19. We want Canadians to know we’re in this with you.”

We encourage Canadians to observe the flyovers from the safety of their home and refrain from travelling to see the flyovers. Please maintain physical distancing practices that are keeping us all safe.

Snowbirds file photo by Ken Kula

Both the US and Canada put their best feet forward and their jet teams were tasked with formation flyovers at major cities, and specifically overhead many of the busiest hospitals and other medical centers which were particularly hard-hit with COVID-19 casualties. Social, television and print media all spread the word of each city’s flyover routes and times, so that available staff members could step outdoors to see and hear the spectacle of a formation, trailing smoke, flying overhead.

Crown Copyright

The Snowbirds would begin their cross-Canada journey from Saskatchewan and head east to the Maritime Provinces, with a total of eleven CT-114s. A nine-ship formation flyover would be the norm all the way westbound to the West Coast. The Tutor jets have a rather limited range, and stops for fuel are numerous and give locals near each airport a thrill too. s of our publication time, twenty four stops have been made, and the team is still on the road, heading west from 

Crown Copyright

In Canada, the Snowbirds finished their proficiency training shortly after the American New York City flyovers. They left their home base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan without numbers on their aircraft… reportedly because either there wasn’t time to do it, or that the numbers didn’t matter because there is no real maneuvering being done like their normal air show routine where their aircraft position number would have had more meaning.

For the initial flights of Operation Inspiration, the Snowbirds traveled to the Maritime Provinces with more to do than just the salute to COVID-19 frontliners though. A pair of difficult events had occurred during the team’s preparations… on April 18 and 19th a mass killing spree took place in Nova Scotia, with the loss of 22 people. A week and a half later, a Royal Canadian Navy helicopter crashed off the shores of Greece during a training mission, killing six military crewmembers. The Cyclone helicopter was part of 12 Wing, at CFB Shearwater Nova Scotia. The first flights would originate from CFB Greenwood, for the St. John, Fredericton and Halifax area, and included a “missing man” formation over Shearwater.

As of our publication time, twenty four stops have been made, including an overnight stopover at their home base on Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan 

Maine National Guard graphic

In the U.S., America Strong would be the name that the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds would fly under. Similar flyovers made by National Guard units seem to fall under another named operation “American Resolve”, or even with no operational name… just a flyover to honor those “on the frontlines” of the COVID-19 crisis. Canadian flyovers would fall under the name of Operation Inspiration.

USAF Thunderbirds graphic

U.S. Air Force video/Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush

For the American Strong efforts, the Thunderbirds kicked off the flyovers with one over their home town of Las Vegas, Nevada, followed by the following week at the Air Force Academy graduation ceremonies in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Denver area. Then, a long-distance mission was performed by both the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels together… departing from NAS Pensacola, Florida and flying a newsworthy display over New York City, Philadelphia, and some surrounding areas.

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” and U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron “Blue Angels” fly over New York City, New York, April 28, 2020. The flyover was part of America Strong; a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize healthcare workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush)

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over Washington D.C., May 2, 2020. The flyover was part of America Strong; a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize healthcare workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ned T. Johnston)

You can read more about these in more detailed articles in Photorecon.net and CivilAviationWorld.com. Subsequent dual-team displays were flown from Pensacola up to Baltimore, Washington DC, and Atlanta before returning to the Navy base. The teams then split off to do more, individual flights. As to the effectiveness of the flyovers, many accounts in popular media reports show hospital workers, still in gowns and masks, cheering as the jets fly overhead. Interviews with some of the workers were filled with thanks for the aerial gestures too.

Seven F-35A Lightning IIs, along with seven F-16 Fighting Falcons and a KC-135 Stratotanker fly in formation as part of the Air Force Salutes flyover May 1, 2020, in Phoenix, Ariz. The formation consisted of 15 aircraft including F-35s and F-16s from the 56th FW and 944th FW, and a KC-135 from the 161st Air Refueling Wing as a Total Force salute to each American serving on the frontlines in the fight against Coronavirus Disease 2019. Air Force Salutes flyovers are a way for the U.S. Air Force to show appreciation to the thousands of heroes at the front line battling COVID-19. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander Cook)

Video by Senior Master Sgt. Ralph Kapustka/148th Wing Public Affairs

Other flights not under the American Strong and Operation Inspiration banners were sometimes called “American Resolve” by some Air National Guard units. Some flights had no name at all, too. Other flybys by civilian warbirds or joint military/civilian formations have been planned and executed. Dissimilar formations, like the Air Force B-52/Air National Guard F-15 flybys in Louisiana, or the planned Air Force Heritage Flight of an F-22 Raptor and a P-51 Mustang have been announced.

Lt. Cmdr. Jim Cox, the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, slot pilot, displays an American Strong sign while transiting to Baltimore as part of Operation American Strong. The Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds, honored frontline COVID-19 first responders and essential workers with formation flights over Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Atlanta on May 2, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christopher Gordon)

Every day, in early May, it seemed that information for another aerial tribute was released. Unlike the air show season, these flyovers are coordinated and assembled in a much shorter period of time than the paperwork and approval process had taken before COVID-19. To assist in these flights happening, an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 crisis has led to the dramatic drop in civilian air traffic, and this has helped open up usually busy airspace around major airports, which allows these flyovers to occur – something unthinkable just a few months ago.

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over New York City, New York, April 28, 2020. The flyover was part of America Strong; a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize healthcare workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush)

 

Graphic by SMSgt. Dan Farrell/Air Force Global Strike Command Air Forces Strategic-Air

So here we are in mid-May, and flyover announcements are still being made as plans are finalized. Just the other day, the Blue Angels shared salutes in Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis in mostly clear skies. This has not always been the case though, and some flights have had to be rescheduled due to weather conditions. The Snowbirds have already had to sit out a couple of days due to adverse ceilings and even snow squalls, and the large, multi-team flight over New York City and Philadelphia was postponed a few days due to high winds. For the most part though, the crews and aircraft have performed flawlessly, the weather has been mostly cooperative, and the teams’ missions to salute the COVID-19 fighters on the ground have been received favorably, according to many social media accounts.

Video by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cody Hendrix

The America Strong Chicago Flyover from withing the Blue Angels formation.

We are all in debt to the medical personnel who risk their lives while caring for victims of this virus. Hopefully these professionals can take a short break from the action and enjoy these aerial salutes offered by the Snowbirds, Thunderbirds, Blue Angels and other military aircraft across the North American continent. Nobody likes the idea of the 2020 air show season in North America being curtailed, but the three jet teams have made the most of the opportunity to take their formation flyovers to the very cities where COVID-19 has made life difficult.

Video by Staff Sgt. Cory Bush/Air Force Thunderbirds

Washington DC’s America Strong Flyover from the Thunderbird Leader’s point of view.

“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”

RCAF Snowbirds Operation Inspiration Flyby announcements

America Strong Flyby Announcements

American Resolve and other Flyby announcements

 

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