Proud American Moments

As Blue Angels and Thunderbirds scream across the sky, behind the scenes, the FAA ensures they can fly safely.

The U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, flew over Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, during their nationwide tour “America Strong.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jose R. Jaen/Released)

Early this year, formations of Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, and other military aircraft streaked across the skies of multiple cities to recognize the work of first responders and medical personnel fighting the COVID-19 public health emergency.

While Americans cheered, watched in silent awe, and snapped salutes as the planes flew by, behind the scenes, FAA air traffic management and controllers were providing vital support to ensure the missions’ success.

Bud DeBolt, Airspace and Procedures support manager at the Dallas-Fort Worth TRACON, viewed the fly-bys as something “important at a time when this country needs good, fun, enjoyable things.”

Bryan Lehman, Airspace and Procedures manager at the Potomac TRACON, helped plan the “America Strong” flyover of Washington, D.C.: “We really enjoyed doing that. We could use our own expertise and add something to the response to [the COVID-19 public health emergency].”

“We obviously wanted to support the mission the best we could,” said Mike Ferger, traffic management officer for the Albuquerque District at the Phoenix TRACON. “I was just happy I could help to make it happen.”

Each flyover offered its own set of challenges.

The Potomac TRACON, for example, had to maneuver the May 2 Blue Angels and Thunderbirds flyover through a portion of P56 — nomenclature for the closed airspace over Washington, D.C.

“There’s a lot of restrictions [surrounding P56],” explained Lehman. Fortunately, FAA Air Traffic didn’t have to deal with the red tape of gaining waivers for the flyover. “The United States Secret Service approved the waiver in conjunction with United States Capitol Police, United States Park Police and the upper echelons of the government,” explained Lehman.

The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over San Diego, Calif., May 15, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ned T. Johnston)

The Potomac TRACON developed a flight track for the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds that flew them over or near 17 hospitals in the D.C. metropolitan area, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda.

“I couldn’t be more happy with the team’s performance during this event,” said Joseph Winingar, air traffic manager at the Potomac TRACON. “This is a prime example of how great teamwork and collaboration make events like this successful,” he added.

The TRACON in Phoenix, Ariz., faced some challenges of its own during the May 1 flyover. In 20 minutes it had to maneuver an Air Force squadron of 18 planes through the airspace of multiple airports.

“This particular flight was a little bit different given that it was a large amount of aircraft over a large area in a quick amount of time,” said Ferger of the Phoenix TRACON. The Air Force formation was formidable: a KC-135 tanker from a local National Guard unit would fly with an escort of nine F-16s and eight F-35s from two different squadrons at nearby Luke Air Force Base.

Complicating the mission was the heavy general aviation traffic in the area. Although the number of air traffic operations at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is down substantially, the large number of flight schools in the area are not showing a decrease in traffic.

“It’s a very, very busy area,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Bartels, who led the flight from the tanker as overall formation manager. The flyover was to recognize first responders and front-line employees, while at the same time establish in the public’s mind Luke Air Force Base’s transition from an F-16 base to an F-35 base.

“I was really impressed from the planning side, the coordination with everybody to make sure we had minimal impact to air traffic, and on the execution from the controllers that were working that day,” said Bartels. “They kept us on the same frequency. They did an excellent job of point outs. It was really, really top notch from the FAA,” he added.

Roughly 1,000 miles to the east, air traffic management at the Dallas-Fort Worth TRACON had been notified that an America Strong flyover was being planned for their airspace on May 6.

DeBolt, the Airspace and Procedures support manager was excited about the mission. “What an honor,” he told staff. “Let’s make this the best that we can make it.”

Navy Lt. Cmdr. James “Rocket” Haley served as the Blue Angels liaison with FAA air traffic. “I was surprised at how quickly I got responses and just total support from the very first call or email,” he said. “Every one of the TRACONs said, ‘Absolutely, no problem. What do you need? How can we help?’”

DeBolt’s staff worked with the Blue Angels for a flyover that encompassed air space around two major cities, 11 airports, numerous hospitals, and the airstrip at Joint Reserve Base Carswell, which formerly housed General Dynamics’ plant that manufactured all of this country’s F-16 fighters.

“This particular track was ad hoc,” DeBolt explained, “involving a series of circular patterns that we kind of built for them.” The hardest part of the exercise, he said, “was keeping up with all the versions, making sure everybody had the latest information. The route changed a minimum of eight times. We kept adding to it,” he added.

Haley has performed in roughly four dozen flyovers for the Blue Angels, but “nothing ever to the magnitude of an America Strong flyover.”

By mid-May the America Strong flyovers had been completed. The message they sent — and the images that remain — are indelible.

“Because of [shelter in place guidelines] and we’re not doing our usual work, it was nice to be involved in something that was like a positive,” said Lehman.

“It was definitely a mission that everybody on our team could wrap our hearts and minds around to support,” said the Navy’s Haley.

DeBolt at the Dallas-Fort Worth TRACON counts the experience as one of his career highlights. “The fact that I get to be a part of the aviation world at this level, and then be in a leadership role that was this important to the president and the [Department of Defense (DOD)], and see how well received it was … I’m just speechless.”

“With all the still-unknowns about COVID-19, its impact on us, potential treatments and vaccines, and the civil unrest in many of our cities, events like this bring hope, and remind us that even though there is still much work to be done, we are the best country in the world,” said Jeff Stewart, acting director of operations for the Western Service Area.

The Federal Aviation Administration is taking proactive steps to help address the widespread health and economic effects that the COVID-19 public health emergency is having on the aviation industry. Learn more about air traffic controllers’ critical work on our website.

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