Thunderbirds to fly over LA, San Diego for morale boost


The Air Force’s Thunderbirds demonstration team will conduct formation flights over Los Angeles and San Diego on Friday, in tribute to medical workers and other personnel responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

It will be the latest in a series of flyovers of major American cities the Thunderbirds, formally known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, have conducted in recent weeks.

The Thunderbirds will first fly their six F-16 Cs and Ds over San Diego at noon Pacific time, for a 15-minute formation flight. They will then fly to Los Angeles, where they will conduct a half-hour flight beginning at 1:10 p.m.

“It is an honor for our team to salute the countless Californians who have committed to keeping the communities safe during this difficult time in our nation,” Thunderbirds commander Lt. Col. John Caldwell said in a release. “We hope to give onlookers a touching display of American resolve that honors those serving on the frontline our fight against COVID-19.”

The flyovers are an effort to boost morale for citizens who have been cooped up in their homes for months while trying to limit the spread of coronavirus, called Operation America Strong. The Thunderbirds last flew over San Antonio and Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, and previously flew over New York City, Washington, Baltimore and Atlanta, among other cities.

However, some have criticized the flyovers on social media as wasteful at a time when some hospitals are short of crucial medical and protective equipment. The Washington Post reported in April that flying the squadrons costs $60,000 per hour.

But military pilots need to fly a certain amount of hours to maintain currency in their aircraft. If they fall below that level and lose their currency, they must go through a retraining process to regain it. Even if the flyovers of cities were not taking place, the Thunderbirds would be conducting training flights elsewhere to keep their pilots sharp.

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In addition, a number of airshows have been already been budgeted but canceled over coronavirus concerns, further reducing the amount of flight hours available.

Critics have also pointed out that the flights draw people out of their homes and into public spaces where they may come near other people, raising fears that they could encourage the spread of coronavirus.

The Thunderbirds discouraged people from gathering at landmarks, hospitals and large groups to see the flight, and asked people to view the flyover from the safety of their home quarantines and maintain safe social distancing practices.

The exact flight route is expected to be released later on Thursday.

Some of the Thunderbirds’ earlier flyovers have been alongside the Navy’s Blue Angels team, but the two teams are now carrying out separate flights.

The pandemic has forced the Thunderbirds to cancel many shows this season, at least through mid-July.


Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.

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