”Operation America Strong” The USAF Thunderbirds and USN Blue Angels Salute New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania COVID-19 Health Care Workers and First Responders

Daniel O. Myers’ look at the mid-COVID pandemic salute to health care workers, just three short years ago!

28 April 2020

It was a beautiful, crystal clear, sunny day. Perfect weather for a mass military fly-over. Starting at around 8:30L, four KC-10s departed McGuire, AFB and headed south. They were tasked with dragging the USAF Thunderbirds and USN Blue Angels north from NAS Pensacola, FL. Over Peachtree City, GA (near Atlanta) the four tankers turned north with the twelve team members and three spare jets in tow. The flight of nineteen planes were on their way to New York City, Trenton, NJ and Philadelphia, PA. They would be conducting flybys of those cities’ hospitals in a salute to front-line health care workers and first responders fighting the COVID-19 virus.

Due to the March 12 nationwide COVID-19 shutdown, all forthcoming U.S. air shows had been postponed. Before ever flying a single show in 2020, the military jet demonstration teams were grounded. After working hard, patiently waiting their turn for an opportunity and finally being selected to the world’s premier military jet demonstration teams, the Thunderbirds and Blue Angel pilot’s life-long dreams seemed fractured. Like the rest of America, they were asked to make personal sacrifices. Theirs included putting their extraordinary flying careers on hold.

In a 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.

Although there were no air shows, the two teams stayed proficient by continuing to practise at their respective home bases. On April 20 the Thunderbirds traveled to Pensacola, FL where they were seen flying alongside the Blue Angels. After a month of planning and coordination between numerous cities and government officials,the two teams would embark on a tour of major cities throughout the U.S.in ”Operation America Strong.” Their mission would take them over city hospitals in recognition of front-line health care workers and first responders fighting the COVID-19 virus.  The first of these flights took them to the nation’s hardest hit areas- NY, NJ and PA.

Just before 12:00L, the four tankers dropped off the twelve team jets and one gray spare, and held over the KILMA intersection for the NYC noontime flyby. As they flew their predetermined route over NYC, mission commander, Thunderbird #1, led the two teams calling out way points for the various hospitals they overflew along with “smoke-on, smoke-off” calls. Following the NYC flyby, the four tankers then escorted the fifteen jets to the Woodstown, NJ VORTAC in preparation of their next objective. While in the 50 minute hold, the pilots dug into their lunch pales, ate snacks and hydrated with drinks. The wait also gave them time to reflect on the NYC flyby they had just flown. The inter-plane chatter by both the tanker crews and jet drivers spoke about how this assignment was truly historic. An epic, once-in-a lifetime experience.

The Philadelphia flyby started over McGuire AFB at 13:45. An even larger crowd than NYC had gathered to watch the second fly-over. Those on the ground showed their overwhelming appreciation be greeting the jets with rousing enthusiasm. Health care workers and first responders gathered in front of their hospitals and stations, appreciating the gratitude they were shown. Photographers on the ground were able to capture both teams in one frame. Possibly, a once ever opportunity. Once completed, the cadre of nineteen aircraft moved on to their next destination- Wilmington, DE.

It was quite evident to the pilots and air crews alike, this day was something very special. To fly in a two jet team formation above America’s largest cities and thank those warriors fighting the “invisible enemy” was truly an extraordinary event. Although their air show season had been cut short, some of America’s best fighter pilots got to do what they to do best- fly fast jets in tight formation. For the pilots, being active participants in this memorable day was maybe a small reward for their sacrifices during a suspended air show season. Good for them. Good for them.

This article was part of Photorecon.net’s coverage of the huge event, published in 2020.