The Pentagon is indeed planning to have the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels overfly a number of American cities to highlight "national unity" in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The War Zone was among the first to report earlier this week that the U.S. military's two premier aerial demonstration teams had flown a rare cooperative training event at the Blue Angels' home base at NAS Pensacola in Florida and that there were other signs of secretive preparations for some form of nation-wide morale-boosting event.
The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe got the scoop on the plan, dubbed Operation America Strong, which is still wending its way through various formal approval processes, on Apr. 22, 2020. The idea "was conceived by senior military officers in the Pentagon and is meant to be a nonpartisan show of resolve," a senior U.S. military official told The Post.
"This is just a sincere thank-you," that same individual said. "It’s one way to acknowledge those who are pitching in."
The Thunderbirds are still at NAS Pensacola and continue to train. Today, Airshowstuff.com also spotted a pair of the Air Force demonstration team's F-16s deploying all-new red and blue smoke. A patriotic red, white, and blue smoke trail from the jets would be a very appropriate accompaniment to the Operation America Strong flyovers.
The exact schedule for Operation America Strong is unknown at this time, but the proposed plan involves the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels conducting flyovers over multiple cities both together and separately. Other aircraft, including bombers, may also be involved in flights close to their home stations. The Thunderbirds already flew over Las Vegas, Nevada and various locations in Colorado to salute those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this month.
None of the flyovers will involve acrobatic routines and the exact flight plans are reportedly intended to avoid crossing over areas where groups could congregate to discourage large gatherings and continue to promote social distancing. Crowds notably turned out in New York City last month to catch a glimpse of the hospital ship USNS Comfort as it arrived in New York Harbor, posing a potential public health risk.
The Pentagon has briefed the White House and members of Congress, including Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the proposed flights. The Secretaries of the Air Force and the Navy also still need to formally approve the operation, as will the Secretary of Defense. Any municipalities where the flights will take place will also no doubt be involved in the planning process as the operation moves forward.
"I’m thrilled to see our military honoring the front-line health care workers who have been fighting every day against this silent killer," Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who said he was aware of planning for the overflights. "They are all heroes deserving of our gratitude and honor."
However, there is already some criticism of the potential costs involved, with the jets alone costing tens of thousands of dollars each per hour to operate. Officials have pointed out that money for the demonstration teams, which have seen their schedules curtailed due to airshow cancellations because of the pandemic, is already in the Department of Defense's existing budgets. Reappropriating defense spending is a complex and time-consuming procedure requiring Congressional approval, as well.
The pilots assigned to the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels would likely still be flying their jets in order to meet flight hour requirements to maintain proficiency, as well. Maintenance and other personnel would still have to conduct routine training, as well. These are realities that The War Zone's own Tyler Rogoway previously pointed out when reports of a potential nation-wide flyover event first emerged, writing:
"Some will decry the cost of such an endeavor. While the funding for these teams is always a simmering debate, the fact is that they are all accomplished fighter pilots and support personnel who need to constantly train. Whether they are in or working on gray or colorfully painted jets doesn't change that. So, why not at least use that flight time to spread a positive message and give people a little joy in what has been bleak and uncertain period?"
When we learn more about "Operation America Strong" we'll be sure to share it with you.
UPDATE: 8:20pm EST:
President Trump has now publicly stated that Operation America Strong will take place in the "coming weeks." The Thunderbirds and Blue Angels "will be performing airshows over America's major cities and some of the cities that aren't major," the President announced, saying it would be a tribute to healthcare works and signal to all Americans to "remain vigilant" as the pandemic continues.
"They're going to be doing a lot of work, a lot of very dangerous flying," Trump said of the demonstration teams. "It's dangerous the odds when you start going at massive speeds and you're 18 inches away from each other."
You can watch the entirety of the remarks regarding Operation America Strong, which came during a regular press briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic response efforts, below:
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