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Thunderbirds flyover brings oohs, aahs to health care workers across San Diego

The famous U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds on Friday performed flyovers at various location throughout San Diego County as a salute to California's frontline coronavirus responders.

NELVIN C. CEPEDA, THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS

By PAM KRAGEN | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 16, 2020

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — In just a few seconds, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flying squadron soared over Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center on Friday and then they were gone. But the experience left a lasting impact on the employees who stood outside to watch the ceremonial flyover for health care workers.

"It was just a brief moment, but the reprieve that it offered, in allowing us that 10 to 12 seconds to not be thinking about the pandemic and the impact it's having on the world, was a valuable thing," said Edel Vargas Sr., lead clinical nurse in the hospital's cardiac catheterization lab and a Marine Corps veteran.

From noon to 12:25 p.m., the seven-plane demonstration team paid tribute to the county's front-line health care workers by flying a looping route over many of the county's hospitals, starting in Chula Vista then flying over downtown San Diego and Coronado, East County, Hillcrest, Kearny Mesa, La Jolla, Encinitas, Oceanside and Escondido.

Launched in 1953, the Thunderbirds is a demonstration team of F-16 Fighting Falcon swept-wing jets headquartered at Nellis Air Force Base in Arizona.

With all the spring air shows canceled due to coronavirus, the Thunderbirds, as well as the Navy's Blue Angels team, have been doing ceremonial flyovers for essential workers in Texas, New Mexico and California. After finishing their tour over San Diego County on Friday, the Thunderbirds headed north to do similar air tours on Friday afternoon over Los Angeles and south Ventura County hospitals.

Vargas, 42, was born in Cuba and immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1980. To give back to the country that helped his family when he was growing up, Vargas joined the Marines and served in the infantry from 1995 to 2001. After he got out, he went to nursing school, married and became a father of two. He has worked for Sharp HealthCare since 2008.

Finishing up his military career at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Vargas said he grew accustomed to seeing jets flying overhead. But seeing them flying Friday in honor of his employees and others on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle was special.

"I felt really connected to their message," he said. "As a leader in the health care industry, I have staff that I consider heroic for the sacrifices they make and the services we offer the community. It made me proud in a parental sort of way because they're all heroes and they deserve it."

Liza Carmody was one of the first employees to head outside Palomar Medical Center in Escondido on Friday to await the Thunderbirds flyover at 12:25 p.m.

Carmody, the district manager for radiology for Palomar Health, served in the Air Force from 2006 to 2010 and was eager to see the sleek white, red and blue jets up close again.

"I'm ecstatic about this," said Carmody, 38, of Carlsbad. "They've always had a tradition of doing all kinds of events and supporting different organizations. This kind of thing will boost morale. Everyone here is tired and this will be a great pick-me-up."

Nearby, Lana Comstock, a nurse in Palomar's diagnostic imaging department, said seeing the planes fly over made her proud of the military. The Rancho Bernardo resident said working in health care during the pandemic has been frightening. But she has also grieved the damage the stay-at-home orders have done to the economy.

"I'm half-half on it," she said. "I think it's important to look at everything. It would be good if we could find a way to balance the impact it's having on people's health and on the economy."

In her 47 years in the health care field, Melinda Miller has seen her share of heartfelt tributes to hospital workers like herself but this was her first flyover. A lead radiologist at Palomar, she said that the past few months have been stressful for everyone.

"What's frightening is the unknown, not knowing the contagion factor," said Miller, 67, of Vista. "People needed something uplifting like this."

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