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Blue Angels, Thunderbirds salute COVID-19 respondersBlue Angels, Thunderbirds salute COVID-19 responders

Flyovers pass over Baltimore, Washington, AtlantaFlyovers pass over Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta

Editor's note: This article was updated May 6 with additional cities that the U.S. Navy Blue Angels will overfly.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds honored “frontline COVID-19 responders and essential workers” with formation flights over Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta on May 2.

“America Strong is a way for both teams to show appreciation to the thousands of doctors, nurses, first responders and essential workers out there serving on the frontline, day in and day out,” said Cmdr. Brian Kesselring, U.S. Navy Blue Angels commanding officer and flight leader for the flyover. “This is an extraordinary and unprecedented time but we will get through this. We are all in this together.”

Kesselring led a formation of six General Dynamics F–16C/D Fighting Falcon and six McDonnell-Douglas F/A–18C/D Hornet aircraft in the “collaborative salute to healthcare workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel.” The flight departed Florida’s Naval Air Station Pensacola earlier on May 2 and with refueling tanker support flew to Baltimore and Washington, and then Atlanta, before returning to Pensacola.

“We are honored to fly over these cities in a display of national unity and support for the men and women keeping our communities safe,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Caldwell, Thunderbird commander and lead pilot. “These flyovers are a gesture of goodwill on behalf of the entire Department of Defense to the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The teams completed an air-to-air refueling over the nation’s capital before descending to pass over Fort McHenry, which successfully defended the Baltimore harbor from an attack by the British navy during the War of 1812. Socially distanced crowds in parks and green space turned their heads upward to watch the unfamiliar sight of two military demonstration teams, their six-ship diamond formations in close proximity and trailing airshow smoke, fly overhead. Downtown residents watched from balconies, and spectators stood on the waterfront and the walkways of several bridges.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, honor frontline COVID-19 first responders and essential workers with formation flights over New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia on April 28. Image from video courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

The formation flew north over hospitals in Towson, made a left one-eighty and turned again to pass eastbound over downtown Baltimore, then turned left again to loop over the Essex and Middle River areas before rolling out on the southwesterly heading that took them to Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C., thousands of residents took advantage of a balmy spring day to go outside and witness the combined flyover. Smoke from the 12 fighters signaled their entry to the National Mall over the U.S. Capitol as spectators looked skyward from the green space. The Washington Monument stood tall as the two flights flew toward the Lincoln Memorial.

Hundreds more observers gathered at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial overlooking the city to view the spectacle. As the formation flew over the statue commemorating World War II servicemen raising a flag on Iwo Jima, the face-masked spectators—many with their children in tow—clapped and shouted support.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds fly above the Baltimore skyline. The seagull behind the Blue Angels was not part of the offical formation. Photo by Mike Collins.

A sweeping north turn followed the Potomac River and put the 12 pilots on a flight path toward Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where they saluted hospital workers and fighting COVID-19. The formation flight then flew west toward Virginia and circled back for another pass over the nation’s monuments before exiting to the northeast and eventually a turn south toward Atlanta.

After more than a month of planning, coordination, and practice, the teams combined to fly over New York City; Newark and Trenton, New Jersey; and Philadelphia on April 28. The Blue Angels will overfly Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and New Orleans on May 6. Overflights typically are announced a couple days in advance on the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels websites.

The teams typically fly at more than 30 airshows each year to demonstrate U.S. military aviation, but many scheduled performances have already been canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to honoring health care workers and other first responders, Operation America Strong also fulfills critical training requirements for both teams. Like all other aviators, the teams’ pilots must execute a minimum number of flight hours to maintain proficiency. The Department of Defense said these flyovers will incur no additional cost to taxpayers.

  • The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Philadelphia to honor frontline COVID-19 first responders and essential workers on April 28. Photo courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Aaron Hicks, U.S. Navy.
  • The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Philadelphia to honor frontline COVID-19 first responders and essential workers on April 28. Photo courtesy of Lt. Cmdr. Aaron Hicks, U.S. Navy.
  • The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels fly over New York City on April 28. The flyover was part of America Strong, a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize health care workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush, U.S. Air Force.
  • The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over New York City on April 28. The flyover was part of America Strong, a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize health care workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush, U.S. Air Force.
  • The military's elite flight demonstration squadrons, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds, gave a salute to health care workers and others on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus. A total of 12 jets, six of the Air Force's F-16C/D Fighting Falcons and half a dozen F-18 C/D Hornets streaked over New York City, Newark, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island before heading to Trenton, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of K.C. Wilsey/FEMA.
  • A U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilot holds up an “America Strong” sign while receiving fuel from a KC-10 Extender assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, May 2. The Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration teams conducted flyovers over Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta to honor health care workers, essential employees, military personnel, and other first responders on the front line of the battle against COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Stephanie Serrano, U.S. Air Force.
  • U. S. Army Pfc. Miranda Ray, 50th Chemical Company, New Jersey Army National Guard, takes a picture during a flyover at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, on April 28. The flyover over was a joint operation conducted by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels to show support for the frontline COVID-19 responders. Photo courtesy of Spc. Michael Schwenk, U.S. Army National Guard.
  • Baltimore is visible from the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds cockpit in this image from an onboard video camera during a flyover May 2 to honor medical workers. Image from video courtesy of Staff Sgt. Cory Bush, U.S. Air Force.
  • The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds fly above the Baltimore skyline during an Operation America Strong flyover on May 2. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • The U.S. Navy Blue Angels, above, and Air Force Thunderbirds conduct an Operation America Strong flyover of Baltimore on May 2. An F-16 camera plane is visible at the bottom of the frame. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Spectators gathered in Baltimore's Middle Branch Park look at their photos after a pass by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds. Many venturing out for the Operation America Strong flyover wore masks; all practiced social distancing. Photo by Mike Collins.
  • Spectators gather at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial to watch the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels air demonstration teams perform a salute to health care workers and others battling the coronavirus during a flyover of Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2020. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels air demonstration teams perform a salute to health care workers and others battling the coronavirus during a flyover of Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2020. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Spectators gather at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial to watch the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels air demonstration teams perform a salute to health care workers and others battling the coronavirus during a flyover of Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2020. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Spectators gather at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial to watch the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels air demonstration teams perform a salute to health care workers and others battling the coronavirus during a flyover of Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2020. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Washington, D.C., on May 2. The flyover was part of Operation America Strong, a collaborative salute from the Air Force and Navy to recognize health care workers, first responders, military, and other essential personnel while standing in solidarity with all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Tech. Sgt. Ned T. Johnston, U.S. Air Force.
Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying, Warbird

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