AUSTIN, Texas - The flight plan on Wednesday afternoon had the Thunderbirds emerging out of the northwest over Leander and then making a tight loop around Cedar Park.
The jets flew above the Regional Medical Center near Hwy 183-A and New Hope Road. An uncertain weather forecast forced an hour delay in the scheduled salute to honor healthcare workers and first responders. Before taking off, team commander Lt. Col John Caldwell explained why all their recent flights are unlike any they have done before.
“It was something that kind of stopped us in our tracks and we had to really figure out how we were going to respond and react to COVID-19 and how we are going to execute our mission,” said Lt. Col. Caldwell.
The flight path covered much of the Austin metropolitan area, targeting areas with major hospitals from Georgetown to the north, to Kyle to the south. The Delta Formation of F-16's flew over the State Capitol dome and into the heart of downtown Austin. There was a loop north into Pflugerville and Round Rock before turning west to Lakeway. The formation flew over Oak Hill and then exited the area by flying south following I-35 to San Antonio.
A small crowd of people gathered around the intersection of RR 1431 and Ronald Reagan Boulevard, where the Thunderbirds made their first loop. Among those there to watch was Rebekah Hui, who plans to serve in the Navy and said she was expecting to experience one overwhelming feeling with the flyover: pride. “I’m just proud to be an American,” said Hui.
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Hui drove from her home in Leander, while Tim and Brenda Mikeska came in from Taylor. Tim made it clear they were not there for a show, but to join in on a statement. “Standing in solidarity with the health care workers, who have to fight this battle every day, and they will continue to fight this battle, this is not over, not for a long time and so they are the real heroes here,” said Mikeska.
This nationwide salute started after air shows for the team were canceled because of COVID-19, but the pilots refused to be grounded. In early April the Thunderbirds did a flyover to honor health care workers in Las Vegas, where the team is based. Another flyover happened in Colorado after the team took part in a scaled-back graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy. By then, the idea to salute those on the COVID-19 frontline literally took off. The Navy's Blue Angels teamed up for joint missions.
“We’ve been amazed at the tenacity and the dedication and the professionalism of our healthcare professionals and as you know this is a stressful time for everybody but it’s particularly stressful for all of our healthcare providers and so we thought what better way to show our support of solidarity, our thank you, and gratitude than dedicating these flyovers to our medical community,” said Lt. Col. Caldwell.
Twin Delta formations first flew over New York City, which is among the hardest hit by the virus. Joint missions also took place over Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Newark. The teams later split up to cover more cities. Earlier this month, the Blue Angels did flights to Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis and then turned to Texas with the dark blue F/A18 Hornets flying over Dallas and also over Houston's medical centers.
Air Force commanders say the missions are not costing taxpayers anything extra. The specially trained pilots are required to log several hours of flight time to keep their certification. Mid-air refueling by tanker jets is also used on several missions to reduce exposure risks for ground crews.
FOX 7 Austin is working to keep you up to date with coronavirus, with both local and national developments. Every weekday we're live at 12 p.m. with a special show reporting the latest news, prevention tips and treatment information.
You can also get the latest COVID-19 news from around the country at coronavirusnow.com.