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Pentagon plans to dispatch Blue Angels and Thunderbirds in coronavirus response

As part of the U.S. Naval Academy's Commissioning Week festivities, the Blue Angels demonstration team performed at Annapolis, Md., May 20, 2015.

RICK VASQUEZ/STARS AND STRIPES

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: April 22, 2020

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The Pentagon is planning a multicity tour of the U.S. military's top flight demonstration teams to "champion national unity" amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to senior U.S. officials and a memo obtained by The Washington Post.

The Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, the demonstration squadrons for the Navy and Air Force, will fly over some cities together and others separately, according to the memo. The flyovers will take place in the next several weeks "to thank first responders, essential personnel, and military service members as we collectively battle the spread of COVID-19."

President Donald Trump announced the mission, named Operation America Strong, after it was reported by The Post on Wednesday afternoon. He said that the mission was "the idea of our great military men and women," and will recognize health-care workers.

"This is a tribute to them, to our warriors because they're equal warriors to those incredible pilots and all of the fighters that we have for the more traditional fights that we win," Trump said.

The mission was conceived by senior military officers in the Pentagon and is meant to be a nonpartisan show of resolve, said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on Wednesday before the president's announcement. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plan had not yet been announced.

"This is just a sincere thank-you," the senior military official said. "It's one way to acknowledge those who are pitching in."

White House officials were briefed on the plan because of sensitivities about people gathering to watch amid the pandemic, the senior official said.

While Trump said Wednesday evening that "air shows" will be performed, the senior military official said that there would be no air shows, and that squadrons would perform flyovers. They will avoid flying over areas where people can congregate, the senior official said.

The decision comes amid Trump's frequent use of military symbolism to convey American strength, sometimes in controversial ways. On Independence Day, he oversaw a "Salute to America" in Washington that drew some criticism for its use of tanks but that ultimately mostly highlighted American military history.

The use of the jets to show resolve could anger those frustrated with the administration's struggles to find enough protective equipment for medical personnel. Flying the squadrons cost at least $60,000 per hour.

The senior military official said that the cost of the flights will come from money already in the Pentagon budget. Other planes also could be involved, the official said, suggesting bombers flying over their home states as one possibility.

Congressional staffs were briefed about the plan this week, an effort in part to manage any political backlash, another defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Offices of Democratic and Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee had been notified, according to Hill officials.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., whose state is home to the Blue Angels, acknowledged Wednesday that he is aware of the plan.

"I'm thrilled to see our military honoring the front-line health-care workers who have been fighting every day against this silent killer," he said. "They are all heroes deserving of our gratitude and honor."

The memo said the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds will fly jointly over Washington, Baltimore, New York, Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Austin. It was not clear whether that list could change, but defense officials said it is not comprehensive.

The Blue Angels, with headquarters in Pensacola, will fly their blue-and-gold F/A-18 Hornets separately over at least 13 other cities, including Miami, Tampa, Tallahassee and Jacksonville in Florida and Norfolk and Virginia Beach in Virginia. Other Blue Angels destinations include Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, and Kingsville and Corpus Christi in Texas.

The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, plan to fly their red-white-and-blue F-16 Fighting Falcons over San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, the memo said. They have headquarters at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The Thunderbirds already have carried out at least two flights that would appear to be a part of the plan.

On April 11, a formation of jets spent about 25 minutes flying over Las Vegas to thank first responders, the Air Force announced.

The squadron followed up a week later by flying over the Air Force Academy commencement ceremony in Colorado and several cities nearby on Saturday.

Speculation that the squadrons would fly together soon had grown since Monday, when the Thunderbirds were spotted flying into Pensacola, the home of the Blue Angels. On Tuesday, the two squadrons flew in formation together over Florida, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

The Washington Post's Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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