photo: Hospital workers in Dallas watch a display by the Navy's Blue Angels on May 6.
Hospital workers in Dallas watch a display by the Navy's Blue Angels on May 6. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Aerial salutes to front-line workers by military jets have become common morale-boosters in cities under coronavirus lockdown. Not everyone is a fan, however.

Supersonic planes screamed across the skies of Texas on May 6 in a display meant to buck up front-line workers who bear the greatest risk from coronavirus. Twelve jets flying in formation streaked over Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, with an afternoon pass over New Orleans, giving the beleaguered workers and residents below a moment’s reprieve from the pandemic’s ongoing onslaught.

The Pentagon recently launched this “collaborative salute” from the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration squads for the Navy and the Air Force. The two-week-long series of flyovers, dubbed “Operation America Strong,” is being billed as a morale-booster for front-line workers like the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who cheered in their PPE as the jets thundered over Baltimore on Saturday. Another wave of military aircraft demos with a similarly chunky name is now in progress — “Operation American Resolve” — featuring fly-bys from Ohio to Oregon.

Worldwide, these flyover exhibitions have already become a staple of the pandemic lockdowns. Back in March, a video of a 2019 aerial display by the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori team (scored to Puccini, no less) went viral, and the squad has since flown over a shuttered Rome to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Italy’s liberation from fascism in April. Aerobatic teams in India and Canada have performed aerial salutes, too.

What makes these displays so riveting — or at least, what has national and military leaders so convinced they are? In the era of coronavirus, the best entertainment going is not a sourdough starter or a set by DJ D-Nice or takeout from the local izakaya. It’s a public spectacle: a shared activity, a communal not-quite-gathering. And for the part of the world taunted by the arrival of spring, a flyover offers a way to be outdoors together while apart. Right now, a safe public spectacle only comes courtesy of these elite squadrons of fighter jet pilots.  

It’s a stunt appropriate for social distancing, since there’s no screen or stage to crowd or rush toward. Those under the flightpath only need to look up. On another level, the flyovers also serve as a reassuring reminder of the power of human ingenuity. A pilot flying an F/A–18 Hornet at speeds nearing Mach 1 is bending the curve of sound. Surely a species that can master aviation can accept the science of staying home!

Not every spirit, however, has been lifted by these sights and sounds. Streetsblog NYC described the New York flyover as “anxiety and pollution wrapped up in the flag.” Others dismiss the displays as jingoistic, empty gestures by a federal government whose response to the viral threat has otherwise been disastrous; indeed, President Donald Trump wasted little time dropping a clip of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds arcing over Washington into a campaign ad praising his administration’s handling of the pandemic. Above all, critics complained that the lofty costs involved with mustering jet squadrons — at least  $60,000 per hour — are an unjustifiable diversion of funds at a time when government dollars are desperately needed for just about everything else.

All of which might be true — except for the part about costs. Pilots need flight hours to stay qualified in their jets, and that includes the active-duty Naval and Marine aviators who make up the Blue Angels as well as the Air Force pilots behind the Thunderbirds’ F-16 Fighting Falcons. The costs of aviation displays and hospital equipment aren’t mutually exclusive, and the flyovers are already paid for. As Stinger says in Top Gun, “You don’t own that plane! The taxpayers do!”  

Of course, with Covid-19 case counts and deaths steady at a high plateau (and climbing alarmingly outside of major cities), many Americans are in no mood for a celebratory demonstration of any kind. According to polls, most in the U.S. disapprove of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, and state leaders have gone to drastic resorts to secure life-saving medical gear on their own. As Jonathan Capehart writes in The Washington Post, the day after the Pentagon announced its first flyover for New York, Trump suggested that coronavirus could be cured by injecting disinfectants into the body. It’s understandable why so many people might find the “Mission Accomplished” vibe of federally-funded aerial theatrics distasteful right now.

Yet even a stressed-out public still needs to find ways to come together while we are apart. And jet planes are freaking awesome! Flyovers are incredible feats. Before engaging in jet-scolding, go ask any child if they are cool. It was heartwarming to see health care workers taking a minute off to get the ‘gram.

Having witnessed this spectacle first-hand when the squad flew over Washington, D.C., on May 2, I can confirm that fighter jets still own. I caught the Blue Angels’ first pass while I was on my bicycle, and the sight of jets soaring over the National Gallery of Art frankly took my breath away.

Too many people love the Blue Angels, it turns out. Appreciative fans in the District did the one thing that local leaders asked them not to do: Crowds gathered on the National Mall for the best views. When I biked to the Mall to see if the public demonstration would turn into a public menace, two friends who rode with me bailed at the sight of so many people. Photos of the crowds were a little misleading: Most of the households and families who gathered were standing more than six feet apart from one another’s camps. Still, plenty of people couldn’t be bothered to wear face masks, and when it came time to leave, social distancing turned into an ordeal on downtown sidewalks.

It would be a horrible irony if a demonstration meant to honor front-line workers instead turned out to be a super-spreader event. Yet it would also be characteristic of the U.S. response to the pandemic for Americans to ignore the safety precautions urged by medical experts. The hope is that this risk is unlikely, based on what little we know about outdoor versus indoor transmission. The scene on the Mall notwithstanding, displays of aeronautical finesse by the Blue Angels might be the safest excuse to go outside and join others in a shared experience. It’s the Blue Angels or Animal Crossing.

Summer is nearly here. Will Americans be able to gather for cookouts on Memorial Day or fireworks on the Fourth of July anywhere? Will anyone want to? Based on how these flyovers have been received, jubilant displays of earnest patriotism could have a fraught place in the pandemic, a war that America appears to be conspicuously losing. A flock of F-16s can’t do much to defeat a virus, and such scenes might feel too partisan for those who fret that conservatives have already hijacked the flag and the national anthem. National symbols belong to all of Americans, though, and public spectacles — like fireworks and fighter jets — are performances that reinforce what those they mean. The public part matters, even when we’re failing, and maybe especially then.

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