It was a very brief — and loud — thank you.
Folks on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic have been thanked for their efforts to keep us all safe during this unprecedented time.
Instead of free meals or home-made signs or hand-stitched masks, though, on Tuesday the thank you came in the form of four F-16s flying in formation over hospitals and clinics throughout Wisconsin.
People eager to see fighter jets flying across robin’s egg blue skies drove to the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. They brought lawn chairs, stood on the grass and parking lots and mingled about 20 minutes before the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing arrived right on time.
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Dogs strained at leashes. Some people sat on car roofs or dad‘s shoulders. It was like a very brief tailgate.
Michele Duame sat in the cargo area of her van next to her brother Ken Duame, who brought a lawn chair.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing. It’s a great tribute,” said Michele Duame, whose cousin is a nurse at the Milwaukee VA hospital.
Mike Ramirez, an Iraq veteran who works second shift in the housekeeping department at the Milwaukee VA, stood on a grassy hill right next to the hospital.
“It’s awesome they’re actually recognizing people on the front line. Everyone is trying their best and everyone has to work together to beat this coronavirus,” Ramirez said.
At 5:55 p.m. the jets flew in a V formation from the southeast right over the VA hospital on their way to Froedtert and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin before heading north to more cities, more hospitals and more people working to save lives during the pandemic.
The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds have flown over cities across the U.S. to acknowledge the sacrifices of so many as part of the military’s “America Strong” campaign. A few weeks ago local aviation units were given the OK to participate.
The 115th Fighter Wing based in Madison jumped on the chance.
“We thought that was really important and we wanted to be a part of it to show our support,” Capt. Leslie Westmont said. “To show everyone we’re in this together and we appreciate the hard work everyone is putting into the COVID response.”
All four F-16 pilots volunteered for the flight, which was part of their regular training. This week the 115th Fighter Wing flight crews are practicing night flying and flying in formation as well as training to arrive at a specific spot at a specific time.
A plane from the Wisconsin National Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing based in Milwaukee refueled the F-16s in the air, which also gave crews from both units valuable training, Westmont said.
“This flyover is not costing any additional tax dollars. We built it into a regularly scheduled mission,” Westmont said.
Capt. Thomas Fry, who became a pilot four years ago and works full time for the 115th Fighter Wing, volunteered to fly the unique mission as a way to express gratitude. He knows how hard medical staff are working — his wife is an ICU nurse at UW Hospitals in Madison.
Residents camp in the parking lots at the VA Medical Center to watch the fly over to salute health care workers on the front line of the pandemic. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“I wanted to show support for the community during the pandemic. Everybody is working so hard during this unprecedented time,” said Fry, who deployed to Afghanistan with the 115th last summer.
Flying in a war zone and flying over Wisconsin, while technically the same, is a different experience, Fry said.
In Afghanistan “we were flying to support a national interest. Here we’re supporting the community,” he said.
The F-16 jets flew about 1,000 feet above the ground, close enough for the pilots to see people below.
After taking off from Truax Field in Madison, four F-16s began the flyover in Kenosha and Racine before heading north over Milwaukee, Green Bay, the Fox Valley, Wausau, Eau Claire, La Crosse and back home.
“A lot of people thought that only the hospitals we highlighted on our route are being thanked. That’s not the case,” Westmont said.
“We couldn’t list every hospital in every area on our plan but we want people to know every health care worker in the state, every truck driver, every grocery store worker, everyone who has been part of this response to COVID-19 — this is for them.”
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